After a cautionary health report and pressure from its teachers union, Seattle Public Schools said it is recommending that classes be held remotely, scrapping its plans to bring students back into school buildings in the fall.
The decision, relayed in an email from a top district official that was obtained by The Seattle Times, cited current transmission rates in King County as a factor in the decision.
“Superintendent (Denise) Juneau is recommending that Seattle Public Schools, like other districts across the state, start the 2020-2021 school year remotely and continue with this model until further notice,” said the email, sent Wednesday morning.
Shortly after that email went out, district spokesperson Tim Robinson confirmed the recommendation in a statement.
“Every recommendation regarding this fall has been made by taking into consideration the latest data and science,” Juneau said in the statement. “The current trajectory of infection in King County and the most recent data and information from public health makes it clear that resuming school in-person this fall is impossible.”
The statement also included support from Jennifer Matter, the president of the Seattle Education Association union. “SEA fully supports opening schools this fall with remote learning only,” she wrote, because it means “students, staff, and community can stay safe.” The Principals Association of Seattle Schools also endorsed the move.
The Seattle School Board is expected to review the recommendation in mid-August and approve a restart plan at that time.
Juneau’s recommendation also calls for training to better equip educators to teach live lessons online in the fall — a departure from the spring, when it was largely up to individual teachers to decide how or whether to teach online. The superintendent is also asking teachers to participate in implicit bias training.
To ensure students receive meals, the district’s proposal would provide food to those who need it. And students who receive special education services will continue to receive them, officials say. The district also says it intends to partner with city officials and community groups to ensure families who need child care have access.
The district has released few specifics, however, about how it would set these plans into motion. For example, it’s unclear when teacher training would begin — and what it will include. It also leaves questions about what families can expect on a day-to-day basis in the fall, such as how students will interact with their teachers and peers during lessons. Officials say they will release more information about student schedules soon.
Over the past week, other surrounding districts such as Bellevue, Northshore, Highline, Renton, Federal Way, Auburn and Kent announced they would conduct classes remotely, too.
“These decisions are not made in a vacuum,” Juneau said in a Zoom call with reporters, adding that she spoke to other local superintendents before making this call. “We actually had a call with King County Public Health yesterday.”
In a statement, state schools chief Chris Reykdal said decisions to go online are ultimately up to local districts. “We knew in June that school this fall would be different than usual,” he said. “We are likely to see many school districts decide to take most of their instruction and supports online, while many others will provide in-person learning within the health and safety guidelines.”
Districts that choose the virtual path are expected to take daily attendance and assign work as usual, he said. They are also expected to provide meals to children who need them, and ensure students have devices and internet connectivity so they can work online.
Seattle’s decision makes it one of several large districts in the country to reverse course on its plan to teach students in person, including Los Angeles Unified and San Diego. In those places, also, strong union pushback and tighter statewide coronavirus restrictions preceded the decisions.
A recent report from state health officials warned that reopening schools in King County would not be safe unless transmission rates decreased. The report, which suggested ways to resume in-person schooling safely, was based on data from mid-June — but stated that buildings should not reopen if July’s transmission rates persisted.
Online learning got off to a bumpy start in Seattle. After labor negotiations slowed the rollout of remote instruction, the district encountered delays in getting technology and internet to students and instructors, interruptions to services for students with disabilities and low engagement among many kids. Parents working both outside and inside the home said they struggled with the added responsibility of keeping their kids occupied with schoolwork during the day.
But the health risks of bringing people back to school buildings, culture clashes over mask wearing and threats from President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to withhold funding from districts that don’t reopen have made the question of resuming in-person classes a political firestorm.
Earlier this month, Matter, the SEA president, released a statement calling the district’s reopening plan reckless under current conditions. The union, which represents 6,000 of the district’s employees, is negotiating work expectations with the district. SEA has said it hopes to wrap up negotiations by the end of July.
The district had spent weeks planning a safe way to return to school buildings, following guidance from the state education department. The plan was to split children into two groups at each school, with the groups attending classes on alternate days — a popular method to ensure distancing that has sprung up in pandemic-era schooling. Families would have also had the option to continue with online learning 100% of the time.
A survey of Seattle parents in the spring found most preferred their children to return to school in a hybrid model, according to the district. Brainstorming groups the district set up in June worked off this assumption. (Officials noted that the survey sample was mostly made up of white families, who are a minority in the district.)
Union officials’ opposition to the plan started in June, around the time the district convened teams of community members, district employees and educators to brainstorm how best to begin the next school year, calling the process rushed.
An email from SEA leadership obtained by The Seattle Times showed the results of a limited survey of union members conducted before the release of the King County study: About 52% of teachers would have been comfortable returning to schools with a nurse on site. The number dropped to 29% if there were no nurse on site. About 1,600 of the union’s 6,000 members took the survey; 80% of respondents were educators.
Like most others in the state, the district does not have a nurse in every school building.
The same email, which SEA sent to its members, stated the union hadn’t taken a position on a reopening model. But just a day later, after news emerged that the district had been planning to bring kindergartners back four to five times a week, Matter said trust had been broken because the district hadn’t informed teachers ahead of time. She released the statement opposing the hybrid reopening model the same weekend as DeVos and Trump made threats about withholding funding if schools did not open.
In the same union survey, 27% of respondents said they do not have the technology necessary to do their jobs remotely.