By spring, Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau wants students enrolled in preschool through second grade back in school buildings daily, and broader in-person services for students with disabilities. The Seattle School Board, which has yet to approve the recommendation, appears amenable, although with some reservations.
It’s the first time the district has put out a major plan for in-person learning this school year. Officials had remained mostly silent on the issue, even as surrounding districts such as Bellevue have been drawing up plans publicly for months. No districts in King County have implemented in-person learning on a wide scale.
Under the proposal, parents could choose to keep their kids at home and continue with remote learning.
But the path to a Seattle reopening, as presented by the district during an online School Board retreat Saturday, is lengthy — about two and a half months between approval and implementation, with a target date of March 1, possibly earlier for special education students. Disease metrics would play a role in kick-starting or scaling back in-person instruction, but all the details are not yet clear. Most critically, a broad return to the physical classroom would need buy-in from teachers, whose union to date has been deeply skeptical of district proposals.
Despite some of the unknown variables, Juneau is pushing for a decision from the School Board in the next week so the district can prepare, moved by mounting consensus from experts that young children stand to lose the most when their education is primarily behind a screen.
“This recommendation doesn’t come lightly, but as we watch other districts across the country, we know that for (young students) it’s important for them to be in-person as much as possible,” she said Saturday.
The district most recently proposed a plan for in-person learning last summer. It reversed course after a cautionary health report and pushback from its union, the Seattle Education Association (SEA).
Jennifer Matter, SEA’s president, declined to comment Saturday on the district’s latest proposal. But like other teacher union leaders around the state, she called into question the district’s safety standards and transparency.
Before students return, Matter wrote in a text message, it is imperative that Seattle Public Schools complies with safety requirements from the state’s health and labor and industries.
“Based on the past few months, SEA has concerns about SPS’s willingness to authentically collaborate with us and families,” she added.
The district said Saturday it would be able to upgrade and adjust any airflow and ventilation systems in its buildings by mid-February. To ensure physical distancing, the district wants a ratio of no more than 15 students to a teacher.
Similar to the summertime plan, the scale of in-person learning and number of educators required to pull it off would depend on how many parents are willing to send their kids to school. The district hasn’t asked parents recently about that. If every parent opted in, it would mean close to 14,000 students — around a quarter of the district’s total enrollment — would get in-person instruction every day. More than 2,000 special education students the district considers to be of the highest need would also be in classrooms.
But factoring in the number of school employees over age 65, and others who may request a health accommodation, the district said it may not have adequate staffing to bring in second graders. Some School Board members suggested the plan should be scaled back for that reason; they also suggested the district come up with a plan to first bring back students with disabilities and other vulnerable populations, and a clearer process for decision-making around disease metrics.
“We haven’t seen any surveys from staff, and I am beyond uncomfortable with the assumptions we’re making today,” said Leslie Harris, a School Board member.
Wyeth Jessee, a senior leader at the district who is responsible for coordinating the district’s health protocols, said Saturday that a King County infection rate of 50 coronavirus cases per 100,000 would “set things in motion.” The state Department of Health guidelines currently recommend counties stay below 75 coronavirus cases per 100,000 to open schools to its youngest students in a hybrid model. The county is now at 422 cases per 100,000.
State guidelines suggest vulnerable populations can receive education face-to-face if it’s safe. About 40 students with disabilities now receive some in-person services, and SPS plans to assess dozens more for services. Some of these students are served outside SPS buildings. Highline, Lake Washington and Bellevue are serving hundreds of students in-person, while Kent and Shoreline are serving none, according to an SPS presentation.