Seattle Public Schools will return to class as usual come fall, officials announced in a letter to staff Friday evening — but only if King County has entered the fourth phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s coronavirus reopening plan.
If the county is still in the second or third phase, all students will be given a hybrid option, which will include a mix of in-person and online learning. Families will also be able to choose to continue learning at a distance instead of returning to school buildings.
After months of uncertainty about whether buildings would reopen in the fall, district officials say their decision reflects input from more than 100 stakeholders — a process some say was too short to allow for meaningful feedback. It also hinges on uncertainty over how the course of the coronavirus will evolve between now and when school starts.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know what will happen over these next few months, so a contingency plan is needed, including how we will address a resurgence of COVID-19 in our community,” district Superintendent Denise Juneau wrote to staff.
The announcement follows guidance from state education officials about planning for in-person instruction, while also incorporating health requirements. Public health guidelines and mandates from state education officials require schools to take safety measures, such as developing ramped-up cleaning schedules and requiring masks. Extra costs associated with reopening Seattle schools may be around $10 million, the district’s CFO JoLynn Berge said Tuesday.
But Seattle families, teachers and staff hoping for details are out of luck. Officials shared little about plans to create socially distant classrooms if schools reopen or how it will keep students safe on city or school buses.
Also unclear: how the district will gauge students’ well-being or learning loss when they return after months away from classmates and teachers.
The district had set June 19 as a deadline for coming up with a plan; Juneau’s letter said staffers and families could expect more details by June 30, when the school board is scheduled to review a more comprehensive reopening plan.
State officials say they expect most districts to return to school buildings in the fall. But how that will pan out across districts and individual schools is uncertain. Many families are likely to keep their children home, some out of fear that resuming class is unsafe, some out of concern about the opposite — that safety requirements like wearing masks are too cumbersome. At-risk teachers and staff may decide to stay home, too.
Seattle Public Schools’ decision followed a Tuesday meeting among district officials, community representatives, students and educators who’d brainstormed ideas for how to resume classes. They’d considered three scenarios: 100% distance learning, a mix of online and in-person lessons for everyone, or in-person classes for younger students and a hybrid model for those in older grades.
Erin Okuno, a work group member and executive director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition, said she was pleased the group included several students. But members met for about 15 hours over the course of less than two weeks — too little time to seriously examine each of the potential reopening models, she said. Instead of digging into the pros and cons of each scenario, she said, the group was primarily asked to focus on related issues, such as transportation, childcare and racial equity.
“On the very last day I didn’t feel confident we walked out with [a solid recommendation]” of what school should look like in the fall, she said.
During Tuesday’s conversation among the work group members, several participants agreed that certain students should get priority for in-person learning over others, namely those who weren’t able to get online this spring or had trouble learning remotely. This includes those receiving special-education services, students learning English and children of color whom the district hopes to better serve, such as Black boys and teenagers.
If the district ends up phasing in classroom instruction, officials said Friday, these groups will be among the first to return to school buildings. Homeless students will also receive priority. If online learning is necessary, officials said, it, “will be high quality and consistently provided with clearer expectations and accountability for instruction and assignments.” This spring, families and teachers expressed serious concern over schools’ uneven approach to online learning.
Teachers were on edge Friday afternoon awaiting the district’s announcement. Gordon Macdougall, a teacher at Ballard High School, said emails between he and his colleagues were flying back and forth as the work day came to a close. By 5 p.m., the district still hadn’t made a decision public.
Macdougall said he’s primarily concerned about safety. “I would prefer that we open online in the fall and play it by ear as we move forward,” he said.
Plans could still change if coronavirus cases pick up here. On Friday, King County officially entered the second phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, which allows small gatherings and more businesses to open. But public health officials could decide to keep schools closed if the course of the virus worsens.
SPS will need a back-up plan in case that happens — or, if school is allowed to resume but is then forced to shut down again because of a resurgence of coronavirus cases in the fall. The district’s work group has said that ensuring students have access to laptops, internet and tech support should be a priority.
Seattle Times staff reporter Dahlia Bazzaz contributed to this report.