Seattle School Board members got a preview of the district’s remote learning plan this week. They didn’t like much of what they saw, and proposed adding optional outdoor classes to improve the plan.
With just a week before the Seattle School Board is scheduled to vote on a plan for instruction this school year, which begins Sept. 2, some members including Chandra Hampson say the district’s plan — which would involve several hours of live, virtual instruction for kids most days — is thin on details and doesn’t properly address concerns about the lack of engagement many families said they received from teachers last spring.
“I don’t even know where to begin,” Hampson said at a virtual work session Wednesday, seconds after district leadership finished presenting their vision for virtual instruction.
The district’s remote learning plan draft, crafted in the midst of ongoing bargaining discussions with its teacher’s union that could render much of the plan moot, included a plan to bring back more traditional grading scales and athletics, as well as example schedules for kids of all grade levels.
Students would start just before 8 a.m. and end around 2 p.m. or 3 p.m, spending about three hours on video chat with their teachers and other students, with breaks for recess and time spent reading or completing assignments.
The mock-ups are similar to what other districts across the country have proposed in response to families’ demands for more predictable schedules and live instruction in the wake of building closures. But some parents and school board members said the schedules try too hard to replicate the rigid routine of a normal school day, especially for young kids, and that they’re unrealistic for working parents to enforce.
Superintendent Denise Juneau said they were trying to honor feedback from parents and model something that would deliver the minimal instructional hours required by the state.
“I heard over and over and over again that families want more live instruction,” Seattle Public Schools superintendent Denise Juneau said on Facebook Live Tuesday. District officials added that live instruction doesn’t always mean lecture-style teaching, and would include small break-out rooms with groups of students.
Board members said what they saw in Wednesday’s presentation left out critical information about other parts of how the next school year will look: education for students with disabilities, child care, meals and attendance policies.
“We sent you 45 questions last week and we received an answer to none of them,” said Zachary DeWolf, Seattle School Board president. “We continue to be confused.”
“We had a short amount of time during the work session to provide an overview of the plan required by OSPI,” Juneau wrote in an email response on Thursday. “There are more details in the printed materials that board members were presented and we are continuing to work on developing the details of the overall plan, including incorporating results from our bargaining with SEA and guidance from public health.”
The district’s reopening plan is due to the state in the two weeks before school starts.
For weeks, board members Hampson, Brandon Hersey and Liza Rankin have worked to craft an addendum to the district’s plan that would provide optional outdoor classes in school playgrounds and city parks. The board members spent the last half of Wednesday’s meeting pitching the idea as a safer way to bring back the critical interaction that kids lost with their teachers and each other, and promote healthy physical activity. Other districts, including Pasadena and Boston, have also explored this approach.
The members said the idea was also important to address a racial justice issue. The district says about a third of the district’s 54,000 students were not participating online last spring, and the numbers are lower for students of color. A survey of families showed families of color were more likely to report low communication from their teachers during building closures. Kids of color are also less likely to have access to safe outdoor spaces, research shows.
The outdoor classes would begin as a pilot program in the fall at a few schools, with the potential to expand. Board members brought in a panel of supportive teachers, students, academics, child care providers and a pediatrician to Wednesday’s meeting.
“For the past four months, our students have been isolated at home — a park might be better than a small room,” said Connor Lee, a special education instructional assistant. He said he’s worked with students with disabilities who have thrived more in an outdoor environment than in a traditional classroom.
The plan would also give teachers the option of visiting students while they are in child care facilities or community centers.
“Over the past six months, we’ve been consistently talking about reimagining education,” said Hersey. “We know virtual learning is not reimagining education, just offering the worst version of what we were already doing.”
Reactions to the idea from power players are mixed, with some issuing full-throated support, and others unsure of its practicality. Most of the board’s seven members voiced their support this week. Leslie Harris was most skeptical, saying she “remained unconvinced” that the district had the bandwidth to pull it off. Juneau said she “wasn’t opposed” on Tuesday, but said she wanted the district to focus on getting remote learning right. The teachers union leadership issued similar sentiments.
Recent emails between board members and the Seattle Parks & Recreation Department showed there was initial interest in exploring a pilot. Board members did not have a cost estimate.
Marcia Ventura, a fifth-grade teacher at Maple Elementary School, said she would love to be outside with her class. But she has questions about how to offer outdoor opportunities equitably across schools, given that participation would be voluntary for teachers and students. Unions here and across the country have taken strong stances against in-person interactions with students. Families may also be unwilling, even if the risks of transmission outside and masked are greatly reduced, she said.
“Coming on the last day of school in March, I had 12 kids out,” Ventura said. “We have a fair number of folks who aren’t comfortable being in person.”
Board members conceded there were elements that needed to be worked out in the coming weeks. But they said the current moment demanded thinking outside of the box.
“Just because something is hard, difficult, or not operationalized, doesn’t mean we don’t owe to our students to try,” said Hersey.