A week from now, at least 10,000 middle and high schoolers in Seattle may have a chance to meet each other and their teachers inside their school buildings in-person for the first time this school year.
The plan to make that happen was drafted in a rush to meet Gov. Jay Inslee’s deadline to provide in-person instruction to secondary students by April 19. Seattle hadn’t originally prepared to bring back older students at this speed and scale this spring.
Many teachers entered their buildings to prepare classrooms and participate in training last Monday without a concrete understanding of how many students they would have back in the classroom. Before they voted unanimously to approve the new model last week, some Seattle School Board members directed their frustrations at the Governor’s deadline.
“Nobody here is happy about where we have landed. And this is where we have landed. And we’re trying our best,” Leslie Harris, a member of the Board, said Wednesday.
Before it can be implemented, the hybrid instructional schedule for spring must be approved by the Seattle teachers union this week. By design, it retains the same general shape as the remote-only schedule: students would get the bulk of their live instruction in the morning online, and the afternoons would be for teachers to reinforce the material and answer questions from students. In-person students would attend twice a week on alternating days in that afternoon time — though schools will have some discretion over how to shape their days.
The schedule clips the live instruction time for remote learners by about 15 minutes, with time added in the afternoons. And to meet the mandatory minimum in-person instructional hour requirement from the state, schools will need to work in six additional hours of in-person time. The district suggests schools do this by creating a different schedule in the final week of classes.
The model also provides in-person students just 45 minutes to eat lunch and commute to schools after attending morning classes online. In Shoreline, by comparison, that transition time is an hour and a half. Several other districts in the region, including Northshore and Bellevue, start their in-person time in the morning.
Hannah, a 14-year-old freshman at Roosevelt who asked that her last name not be used, has never been inside her school building or met her classmates. But she’s determined to make it work. She’s planning to either walk or ride her bike to the building, sandwich in tow.
But the slim time offered for transitions could be troublesome for some who want to participate. Kids who don’t live within walking distance to their school, or have access to a car, will have to take public transportation. There, they may encounter another logistical barrier — an increase in ridership that county transportation officials hadn’t originally anticipated, which could cause delays in service. At a School Board meeting Wednesday, district officials said attendance could be taken at the end of the first in-person period to provide flexibility.
“We’re asking all riders to plan ahead, allow extra time, and to be patient when waiting for and boarding transit if demand temporarily exceeds the available service,” a King County Metro spokesperson wrote in an email.
In-person survey numbers finally began trickling in last Wednesday. (This week, the time immediately preceding students’ return, is spring break.)
Eighty-three percent of more than 26,000 families of secondary students responded to a district survey about in-person learning. Of those who responded, about half opted for in-person.
Among students of color the district deems furthest away from educational justice — African American, Latinx, Pacific Islander, Southeast Asian and Native American students — about a third opted for in-person and a third opted for remote. About 34% did not respond.
The plan has some good qualities, said Tymmony Keegan, a 10th grade humanities teacher at Cleveland STEM High School. But the rushed process “doesn’t take into account the needs of families,” and has not given teachers any breathing room, she said. “The only thing that should be happening right now is that we should get in touch with every single family.” On Friday, Keegan said she still did not know how many students she would see in-person.
In crafting the new plan, district and union officials said they faced constraints because of the minimum amount of in-person instructional hours required by the state. They sought to create a schedule that kept students with their assigned teachers in every class, and eased schools into having more students back in buildings.
In public meetings and interviews, leaders at the bargaining table said they made the plan with the assumption that many students they consider “furthest from educational justice” would opt to stay in remote learning. In district surveys, those families have been more likely to indicate remote learning as their preference compared to white families. National research points to concerns about the virus and racism inside school buildings, especially among Black and Asian families.
As a result, “we didn’t create any secondary class of education in this process,” said Uti Hawkins, vice president of the Seattle Education Association union, who was one of the union’s bargaining leaders. In other words, the deal tries to provide equal weight to the needs of both in-person and remote kids.
But some educators and parents are pointing out that the short time allowing students to commute to their schools, along with transportation challenges, are also among the reasons why some families may choose to stay remote.
“If it’s truly about families of color, we should be able to see that it works successfully for those families,” said Tanisha Felder, whose daughter, Bayje, will attend school in-person at Orca K-8. “It’s the model that needs to be changed if that’s true.”
Joshua Hansell, a teacher at Chief Sealth International High School, said many of his students who have opted to stay at home for the rest of this year are doing so because of the barriers the new schedule creates. Some students have picked up jobs to help their families out, he said, and others say it would be difficult to get to school on time with the short transition period.
If the plan is implemented, Hansell, the father of an SPS student at Denny International Middle School, would also feel the hardship of the schedule.
“Since they’re required to be at home in AM, I also have to be at home in the AM. So I have to give up some of my tiny 30 min lunch to get us both to school for PM,” Hansell wrote in a text message.
Some, like Seattle School Board president Chandra Hampson, wanted to see longer days in-person and employ the use of “simulcasting,” where teachers teach new content to students in the room and at home at the same time. She had imagined a different plan taking shape this spring, where the district would bring back at-risk students for longer instructional times.
Several districts in the region, including Shoreline, Northshore, Bellevue and Highline, have opted for some form of simultaneous teaching. But the teachers union in Seattle and national labor leaders have resisted, saying multitasking leads to teacher burnout, and requires better equipment than many schools have. Randi Weingarten, who leads the American Federation of Teachers, told The Washington Post in February: “It is not humanly possible to engage kids in person and online at the same time with the attention that is needed.”
The Seattle deal would still require teachers to multitask in the afternoons: They would need to switch their attention to provide support to kids who login virtually and those physically in their classroom.
During a School Board meeting Wednesday, a parent testified against the plan, saying they are upset that the primary way students would receive new instruction is remotely.
For Felder, a Shoreline district administrator whose daughter attends Orca K-8, academics aren’t the factor guiding her decision to send her daughter back. Bayje is in a transitional year — 8th grade — and she wants her to have closure.
“You can’t catch up a year in a few months. It’s just not possible,” said Felder. “What’s more important to me is the social emotional aspects. They could be sitting together listening to music, reading stories out loud.”