By March 1, Seattle Public Schools will bring preschoolers, kindergartners, first graders and additional students with disabilities back to the classroom for in-person learning, the Seattle School Board decided unanimously Thursday evening.

The decision comes after months of speculation about when the state’s largest school district — one of the first urban school systems in the nation to close in light of the pandemic — would bring more of its students back in person. Other neighboring districts have already announced reopening plans with earlier start dates.

“This will be one step in a very prolonged process” to eventually bring all students back, said Chandra Hampson, School Board president. 

If the family of every student eligible to receive in-person services opts to return, it would mean about 11,000 students would be back in school buildings, about a fifth of the district’s total enrollment. It’s also possible the district may expand in-person services to more students with disabilities sooner than March 1. The plan is to bring students back in person for up to five days a week.

The district won’t begin surveying families about their comfort level returning or negotiating with the teachers union until after winter break, two factors that will significantly alter how the plan is put in place.

Jane Woods, a kindergarten teacher at Maple Elementary School in Southeast Seattle, said she’d be willing to return to the classroom once she’s had a chance to look at the district’s safety plan and sees that it’s adequate.  

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“I think in-person instruction is important,” said Woods, who says some of her students have consistently struggled with internet access. “My concern is doing that safely without vaccinations.” 

The plan mirrors Gov. Jay Inslee’s new guidance around reopening schools in some ways, and differs in others. It assumes there will be 15 students per classroom, and in light of the loosened guidance from the state, rolling out the plan is no longer contingent on community transmission rates. 

The district’s plan is also more restrained than what the new guidance advises, which is to phase in all grades of elementary school students no matter what the infection rates are. Liza Rankin, a School Board member, said that decision was a function of how many staff the district had available to teach. Factoring in the number of older and at-risk employees who may choose to opt out of teaching, the district will need to rely on some instructional aides and other staff members to lead some classes, the district said.

English learners may be added to the population of students eligible to learn in-person later this winter.

Jennifer Matter, president of the Seattle Education Association — the union representing 6,000 of the district’s educators and school employees — did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Board members voiced concern about whether the district would be able to afford the transportation and cleaning costs required to reopen. Inslee has offered $3 million for personal protective equipment (PPE) across the state, and Microsoft announced Thursday that it would donate PPE from its stockpile to schools. But Hampson says that won’t be enough. 

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Because the district hasn’t conducted a survey of parents, it’s hard to know how many families will ultimately decide to take the plunge. 

Parent Chanie Sanford said she wouldn’t feel comfortable having her daughters return to a classroom setting until she and they could get access to a vaccine; she has a heart condition and worries about exposure to the virus. 

“It’s not that I don’t trust the teachers and the school itself, but it’s more that I can’t take that risk,” said Sanford, who has a daughter in first grade at Leschi Elementary School. She wants the district to provide more one-on-one tutoring and mentorship for younger kids learning remotely. 

A recent district survey of students found about a third of them felt favorable toward remote learning. The survey was filled out by about 65% of students in grades 3-12.

The district’s deliberating over reopening has been a frustrating process to watch for Emily Cherkin, mother of a student at Jane Addams Middle School. 

Cherkin appreciates that the board and district took this step, but it feels like too little, too late. She said the work should have been done in the summer, and even if it’s too soon to bring older kids back into classrooms, there should at least be a plan in place for them. Hampson said the plan was by no means final, and would continue to be updated.

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“I struggle to see how Seattle is operating so differently from neighboring districts,” said Cherkin, a screen-time consultant who has testified at almost every board meeting since the start of the school year. “I just hear so many excuses and deflections.” 

Bellevue — which had announced plans to bring students back earlier in the fall, then delayed those plans — announced this week it would bring back K-2 students at the end of January. 

On Thursday, several other local districts were evaluating Inslee’s directives and deciding how to handle reopening school buildings. The Lake Washington district expects to announce plans Jan. 6 to return more students to in-person learning. As of October, the district was serving about 475 preschool and special education students in person.

Highline Public Schools aim to bring students back in February “if COVID rates are at an appropriate level” based on health guidance, said chief communications officer Catherine Carbone Rogers. Highline plans to start with elementary grades, phasing grades in a week apart. There, about 151 students with “the most profound special needs” are learning in person, she said. 

Seattle Times staff reporters Joy Resmovits and Hannah Furfaro contributed reporting to this story.