For eight months, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) leaders say they will lean on the work of a 20-person task force to help inform its decision-making as schools mediate worsening educational inequities caused by remote learning. Anyone can apply to be on it.

Contrary to its name — the Reopening Plan Task Force — the group’s primary focus isn’t to guide the physical reopening of classrooms, but to improve upon current remote learning practices.

On paper, the group is intended to be a sounding board and regular advisor to the superintendent throughout this school year. The district expects the group to derive its recommendations from academic research (particularly on remote learning), district data on student engagement and community feedback.

Or, in the district’s words in School Board documents: “The Task Force will make recommendations to the Superintendent and Board leadership regarding mid-year course corrections, possible revisions, and other continuous improvement ideas.”

The creation of this group comes as other districts are considering how to — really — reopen school buildings. The Puyallup School District began testing out a hybrid model on Tuesday.

At a School Board meeting next week, the Bellevue School District is proposing a return to full-time, in-person learning for students in preschool through second grade, and a hybrid approach for older kids. Tacoma was also supposed reintroduce special education students and kindergartners to its buildings, but backed off this week, saying its masks were insufficient to meet safety standards.

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Applications for the Seattle task force are open to the public and will close on Oct. 7 at 9 a.m. One-third of the spots on the task force will be reserved for parents of students that the the district labels as farthest from educational justice, a group that includes African American, Latinx, Native American, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander students. The twice-monthly meetings are public for non-Task Force members, though they cannot participate in the discussions.

With a scheduled launch of Oct. 31, the group — which seeks to involve parents, students, educators and members of the broader community — will convene as many school district leaders are making fast decisions based on health metrics and participation rates that vary based on students’ economic backgrounds.

From Sept. 4 to Sept. 18, about 92% of enrolled SPS students logged on to at least one of the district’s online learning tools: Microsoft Teams, Schoology or Seesaw, superintendent Denise Juneau said last week. Among just elementary schoolers, those numbers drop to 86.3%.

About 98% of middle school students and 96.1% of high school students logged on to those platforms at least once during the same time period, with slightly lower numbers for African American boys, the group the district has sworn to serve in its strategic plan. Juneau did not share information for other populations.

Based on recent statements from district leadership, it seems as though SPS will likely stay online for the foreseeable future. Sherri Kokx, the district’s chief of staff and Juneau’s former senior adviser, says she doubts there would be any full return to a traditional classroom model this school year. A hybrid model would be more realistic if public health conditions allow for it, she said.

“I hope I’m wrong,” Kokx said at a School Board meeting last week.

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Mirroring national division over schooling in the pandemic, tensions over the district’s direction have simmered since the spring statewide school closure order, beginning with sharp criticism from its teachers union. This is the latest effort to democratize the district’s decision-making, though a common criticism of task forces is that their resulting work is rarely implemented. It’s also another call to center the outcomes of African American boys in its educational practices.

It’s unclear how this task force would interact with the other systems the district plans to set up to inform its approach to this school year. In August, Seattle School Board members approved a resolution that would create this task force and another one focused on forming a plan to offer outdoor schools and community spaces as venue options for teachers and students to interact.

The School Board hasn’t yet introduced a formal resolution to create the task force but plans to do so soon. The district hired an outside facilitator for a vague sum that is estimated to be under $100,000.

New conditions added to the teachers union contract also require SPS to create a committee of district employees and union members who will review public health data and make recommendations about reopening models to the superintendent.