It’s official: With a unanimous Wednesday vote from the Seattle School Board, the state’s largest school district will begin the academic year remotely, for the most part.
Eventually, some classes could occur outside: The remote learning plan passed with a wide-ranging amendment plan from School Board members that directs the superintendent to explore creating outdoor classes, and also reinforces teaching of ethnic studies, the state tribally developed curricula and Black studies. It also calls for expanding existing partnerships with organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club, which could potentially mean teachers having the option of visiting their students in those settings.
But the district’s plans are far from set. Seattle Public Schools (SPS) is still bargaining with the teachers union, the Seattle Education Association (SEA). These discussions will set the parameters for how teachers spend their time, and for the support the district will provide to them and families to succeed in an online learning environment. The state sets a minimum number of instructional hours that all districts must provide, but has allowed flexibility in what constitutes an instructional hour.
The result of the negotiations will also play a crucial role in setting student schedules and what the school year calendar looks like. So, with just about 20 days before the school year’s Sept. 2 start, much is still up in the air.
“Putting these plans together before the end of collective bargaining seems like putting the cart before the horse,” said board member Leslie Harris.
The plan, which board members criticized last week for its lack of detail, passed by a vote of 7-0. On paper, the remote learning plan — a document drafted to fulfill a state requirement — did not give many insights into what learning would look like for the district’s more than 50,000 kids in fall. Because of how early the state set requirements around districts’ fall plans, much of what the district submitted was related to safety precautions in a hybrid model of in-person and online schooling.
A presentation last week set the general parameters: Students would spend about three hours a day on video chat, there will be no F grades, schools will have relaxed rules on late work, and some special-education students may be eligible for in-person instruction.
“This is a living document, and it’s subject to change,” said Denise Juneau, SPS superintendent.
Similar plans to start remotely have emerged in school districts across the state, with the exception of school systems located in a few small communities, such as Onalaska or Taholah. Health officials in all of Washington state’s top 10 most populous counties have advised against reopening school buildings for in-person instruction.
The district provided partial or full answers to hundreds of questions posed by board members in the last two weeks that offer some more details, which are subject to bargaining. Some highlights:
- Child care, operated by outside providers, will be available at 68 different sites owned by the district.
- The district will add 25 more sites for meal distribution, for a total of 40.
- Daily attendance will be required, and taken through a variety of means, including through completion of assignments and presence in virtual classes.
- There will be a universal assessment for students to check on where they are academically.
- Tech support will be expanded for families, students and educators.
- If special education and other specialized services are offered in person, the district plans to provide it in two school buildings in each region of the city.
- By the end of September, every family will have been contacted by a school staff member to check in on student wellbeing and needs.
- The district is working on more ways to track student engagement on online learning platforms and Zoom. Staff also shared data from last spring on how many students logged into the district’s virtual portal at least once between March and June. The data show older kids were significantly more engaged than younger students.
- Every student will have a device sometime in the fall, but not by the first day of school. The district will distribute more devices to elementary school students throughout September. All instructional staff will also receive a computer.
Things could still change
For the third summer in a row, bargaining between SEA and the district has crept into the final weeks of summer, leaving the city in a considerable amount of anxiety.
“This is my constant complaint every year. I feel like we wait until the last minute,” said Rebecca Mongrain, a parent of two kids at North Beach Elementary School in Ballard. “I feel it’s more important that we get this buttoned down. It’s very frustrating to me.”
While the district has said some in-person special-education services would be available in the fall, and that reopening buildings for instruction would be a decision made with county health officers, SEA officials have proposed more specific requirements, according to a recent bargaining summary document from the union.
Under the union’s proposals, one-on-one services in person, such as special education, wouldn’t be offered until King County sustains the following conditions for more than two weeks: fewer than 25 new coronavirus cases daily; a flat or decreasing hospitalization rate; and a percentage of positive virus tests averaging 5% daily, the maximum rate at which epidemiologists say reopening schools would be safe. Under the union proposal, hybrid learning for all students wouldn’t occur until these conditions remain for close to three months.
The question of how and whether to provide in-person services has spurred a heated and complicated debate around the country, splitting public opinion. Most the nation’s large school districts still have community transmission rates that are too high to reopen safely on a wide scale. Teachers unions, worried about risk to employees, are setting guardrails. Child care facilities have picked up many in-person education duties in the interim. And statements from from President Trump pressuring districts to reopen made a health-related question a political one, too.
Some services proved difficult to deliver virtually, particularly for students with disabilities and English learners. Parents, also concerned about safety, are exhausted after a spring when they had to play teacher, and concerned about how little schooling their kids got in the spring.
While many parents requested more live instruction, working parents, especially those of young kids, and students with disabilities, don’t have many options for supervising their kids and making a living at the same time.
They, and educators who are parents, are demanding more flexible scheduling options that don’t adhere to a traditional “early start, early finish” model that schools follow. Examples of schedules from the district so far have used this model.
“The immediate needs of my family are taking precedence over this debate over reopening,” said Jena Meagher, a teacher at Viewlands Elementary School, whose daughter, Kloe, attends Jane Addams Middle School, and receives special-education services. Her teaching schedule would overlap with her daughter’s school schedule, making it difficult for her to supervise or help.
At the Wednesday meeting, Clover Codd, the district human resources chief, said the schedules would be flexible to school and student needs.
The union is also asking that the district assign social workers, family support workers and a family advocate to each school; undertake a comprehensive assessment of technology needs for each family and supply more staff to assist with language interpretation for families whose primary language isn’t English.