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caption: An empty classroom in Parrington Hall where Bangally Fatty was enrolled and taking a class is shown on the University of Washington campus on Thursday, November 16, 2017, in Seattle.
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An empty classroom in Parrington Hall where Bangally Fatty was enrolled and taking a class is shown on the University of Washington campus on Thursday, November 16, 2017, in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

How many Seattle students are doing distance learning? The school district can’t say

After two months of state-mandated distance learning due to the coronavirus, and distributing 13,500 laptops to students, Seattle Public Schools cannot say how many of its students are showing up to virtual classes, handing in assignments, doing paper packets, or have even made contact with school staff.

Many teachers, meanwhile, say their online lessons are only reaching a fraction of their students and that participation rates tend to be lowest among children of color, low-income students, and kids with disabilities.

Spokesperson Tim Robinson with Seattle Public Schools said data is sparse.

“We don’t have any hard numbers or data to provide regarding non-connection between students and teachers,” he said.

The best available data, he said, showed that, in recent weeks, 70% of students -- or their parents -- logged into Schoology, the website where assignments are posted.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” said Bruce Patt, a Language Arts teacher at Madison Middle School in West Seattle, because Schoology logins do not reflect actual participation.

Patt said one of his seventh-graders logs into Schoology daily but “he doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t turn anything in.”

Like many of the dozen teachers KUOW contacted, Patt determines which of his students are engaged in distance learning by looking at who is coming to online class meetings and handing in work. It's the closest equivalent to the traditional attendance rosters and grade books.

Student participation rates are troubling, Patt said. In one recent week, 40 percent of one class showed up to online meetings. Only one in five students turned in assignments. In contrast, 80% of students in one of his highly-capable classes completed those tasks.

Patt said he’s especially worried about the approximately 15 students of color he serves. Of those students, “I'm regularly seeing [just] one, and she's the only one who's turning in any work,” Patt said.

The district’s strategic plan, which Superintendent Denise Juneau routinely cites as guiding all of its work, promises to “unapologetically address the needs of students of color who are furthest from educational justice.” The district does not currently have a handle on what those needs are: who has mostly or completely abandoned school, and why.

“Even though this pandemic affects everyone, those who were already in poverty before this began are certainly feeling it the worst,” said Enrique Black, who teaches fifth grade at Bailey Gatzert Elementary in the International District. Nearly every student at his school is a low-income child of color.

Black said that 10 out of his 26 students regularly participate in his online lessons. Others, he said, are “doing what they can” on the paper packets the school hands out along with sack lunches.

At Lowell Elementary School on Capitol Hill, which serves primarily low-income students of color, one teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said she and her colleagues have been comparing participation data in their classes. On average, she said, teachers are reaching about 30-40%, with wide variation by class.

Only some school administrators have asked for copies of such data. At Gatzert, teachers are required to turn in biweekly participation and communication logs. At Madison, Lowell, and Ballard High School, teachers said, there is no such requirement.

Students have a wide array of reasons for not engaging in distance learning: some lack computers, have trouble using district-provided devices, or lack reliable internet service. Families often lack the transportation to pick up the paper lessons the district hands out at its school meal pick-up sites.

Some children do not have family members or child care providers who can help them with their schoolwork or monitor their progress - sometimes, due to language barriers or illiteracy. Many children spend their days caring for younger family members, or work paid jobs to support their families.

For students with disabilities, the format of the lessons may not meet their needs or be possible without the assistance they usually receive at school.

Anxiety, depression and apathy are also common among students right now, teachers and families report. They said it’s especially hard for some teens to stay motivated when they are all but guaranteed to receive straight A grades due to the district’s grading policy this term.

Teachers said they worry about what will happen this fall, when the district is likely to rely again on distance learning for at least some students, and possibly for all students in the event of more Covid-19 flare-ups.

Erin Okuno, executive director of the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition, said participation data can help districts figure out which students have basic needs that need to be met.

“Looking at the numbers around who is not turning in work is not just a number about academic success - it’s also looking at the health and well-being of our families,” Okuno said.

“If a kid isn’t turning in work, the question should be ‘why?’ Is it because of access to the internet, or is it something deeper, such as they don’t have housing right now?” Okuno said.

The first step, said Seattle School Board member Brandon Hersey, is for the district to define how student participation is measured: do students need to be showing up to online class meetings and doing assignments in order to be considered “engaged” in learning, or is just one of those enough?

“We really just need to figure out the other metrics that hopefully we’ll be using next year besides Schoology to determine engagement - what aspects of those are working, especially for families of color, families from low-income communities, and what aspects aren't [working],” Hersey said. “So that we can get what we actually need to get to families.”

Nearby districts are already using multiple measures to figure out who is taking part in school. In Edmonds School District, teachers are required to provide the district with the rate of student participation in online meetings, recorded lessons, and assignments, as well as data about communication with families, said spokesperson Harmony Weinberg. Lake Washington, Everett and Bellevue School Districts reported using similar metrics.

In Seattle, the district’s only firm plan so far is to start tracking students’ participation in online class meetings, said spokesperson Tim Robinson.

“We are continuing to improve and build on our mechanisms for determining student engagement, including mining data that we’ll soon be getting from Microsoft Teams, as well as gaining more input when students begin using SPS emails,” he said.

Among some Seattle educators there is suspicion that the district might use student engagement data to measure educators’ effectiveness.

“When that data is reported at the individual student or staff level, it has potential to be inequitably weaponized against individuals,” said Connor Lee, a special education instructional assistant at Louisa Boren STEM K-8 in West Seattle.

Lee pointed to the district's past efforts to use students’ standardized test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations, as is common practice elsewhere in the country.

Among Lee’s colleagues, “Concern has been expressed that even ‘objective measures’ would inadequately capture reasoning for engagement rates, and could lead to inequitable reflection upon staff and students,” he said.

But Madison Middle School English teacher Bruce Patt said student participation rates are critical to face in order to figure out who is being served, and how to bring those who are not back to the real or virtual classroom.

“If we continue on this, there's a whole set of skills and structures and approaches that we need to make sure that we reach those kids,” Patt said.

“I used to put some sort of a psychological buffer out there - like, ‘I'm here to teach you how to read and write,’” Patt said.

But trying to reach students -- and failing that, reaching their parents -- during the school closure has shifted his thinking.

When he reached the mother of a student he hasn’t heard from since school closed, at the front of her mind was survival, not schoolwork: she asked him who she could talk to to get things she needed for their home.

“The curtain has been pulled back from all of these inadequacies and inequities that are built in that are just baked into our system,” Patt said.