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When will students return to the classroom in Seattle Public Schools?

As suburban districts unveil plans to bring students back to the classroom this fall, many parents in Seattle Public Schools want to know why the state’s largest district has not announced when it might restart in-person learning – especially for younger students, who tend to find distance learning most challenging.

Alexandra Olins said it’s been “deeply troubling” to watch her son, a sixth-grader, go from his normally active, exuberant self to now spending his days staring passively at a screen. Olins said she’s hungry for signs that the district is planning on how and when it can safely reopen classrooms – but has heard little.

“I’m not saying [in-person learning] should be happening now,” Olins said. “I’m just really concerned that SPS has no intention of pivoting to any kind of in-person model at all this year.”

Although the district had promised that students with disabilities would receive in-person special education services this school year as needed, and state agencies have stressed that this should happen as soon as possible, few parents report that their children have yet been offered those services.

“How do people not think this is a crisis?” asked Kelly Hill, whose 19-year-old son Avram has significant developmental disabilities and is non-verbal. Avram cannot safely be left unattended, Hill said, and the district has not offered any in-person services for him. Hill, a single parent, is home with her son 24/7 with no respite.

While many parents are eager for word that schools are reopening, if only part-time and for the students most in need, others are in no hurry.

Seattle School Board Director Brandon Hersey said that at PTA meetings he has been attending in his south Seattle school board district, there is no widespread push to get back to the classroom.

“Very few folks are even really interested in having a conversation, especially from communities of color, about returning to school,” said Hersey, who is Black.

“I was just at a funeral back home in Mississippi - my uncle passed away of Covid,” said Hersey. "So this is still a very, very real situation for a lot of people. And we're already starting to see a lot of schools close again [nationwide]. This is just something that we don't necessarily need to be rushing into,” he said.

District spokespeople did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But at a school board meeting in late September, district chief of staff Sherri Kokx said a full return to the classroom would be unlikely this school year, and that a hybrid model would be more realistic if public health conditions allow.

“I hope I’m wrong,” Kokx said.

How SPS will make the decision to reopen

In a late-summer agreement with the teachers union, the district said it will use recommendations from the state Department of Health to help guide decisions about when to bring students back. The state advised that districts first offer on-site services to students with disabilities, then “consider expanding in-person learning to elementary students” once community spread of Covid-19 reaches 75 known cases or fewer per 100,000 residents for at least a two-week period.

King County was below that threshold from the end of August until the rate trended sharply upward in the past week. The county is at now 77 cases per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks.

Transmission rates are only part of the picture: the Department of Health has also told districts to hold off on in-person learning until districts have implemented all recommended health and safety measures, including proper ventilation, social distancing, protective gear, and plans for safe school bus transportation, and until schools have plans to monitor students for illness and isolate anyone with symptoms.

A work group of district staff and union members began meeting last week to analyze public health metrics and make reopening recommendations to the superintendent, said Jennifer Matter, president of Seattle Education Association.

The union has been trying unsuccessfully to resolve key health and safety issues with the district, Matter said, including how much protective equipment the district has available for school staff, and the results of indoor air quality testing the district recently performed in school buildings.

Matter said the district has yet to show the union complete indoor air quality data.

“The district thinks all they have to do is say they’re in compliance, and that they don't have to actually show us the evidence that they're in compliance,” Matter said.

“What trusting relationship have we established that they think we're on a ‘We got you, don't worry about it’ status?” Matter asked. “I don’t think so.”

Discussions about the protective equipment school staff need to safely work with students were recently complicated by new, stricter guidelines from the state Department of Labor & Industries, said Patty Hayes, director of Public Health - Seattle & King County.

“It felt like they were changing guidance around protective equipment, and sending out a message that was totally counter to public health guidance on N95 masks,” Hayes said.

Public health officials want N95 masks reserved only for medical personnel and those doing direct caregiving, Hayes said. While that does include some school staff members, Hayes said, the L&I guidelines suggested that even janitors should have N95 masks to safely do their jobs.

After public health officers objected to the L&I guidance, it was mostly rectified within a few days, Hayes said – but it had already caused "a big kerfuffle,” throwing districts and unions into confusion, and even led to some districts rolling back their plans to restart in-person learning.

Public Health has been meeting with superintendents roughly biweekly to update them on transmission rates and answer questions. Hayes said each district has its own set of considerations before restarting in-person learning, including the transmission rates in its smaller geographic range as compared to the county as a whole.

“In an area where I see a higher positivity rate, maybe bring back the kindergarteners and maybe the first graders - maybe do a hybrid there and test it out, and then expand it,” Hayes said. In a district with lower community transmission within its borders, grades K-3 might be able to restart in-person, Hayes said.

No timeline in sight

In Seattle, however, there is no sign that most students will be back in classrooms anytime soon.

The district special education department emailed one parent this week that "at this time, we are unable to set a start date" for special education services, citing the recent L&I guidance regarding PPE for staff.

Meanwhile, Kelly Hill has not been able to go to her job as a mental health therapist for people in supportive housing for more than a month. Instead, she turns on the Prince music videos Avram loves to watch, does what work she can from home, and appeals to the district for services for her son.

“They’re ignoring me. They don’t respond to my emails. It feels like systemic abuse,” Hill said.

School Board member Brandon Hersey said the first priorities for the district should be ensuring that it is adequately serving special education students, and making online learning fully accessible for all students, before wider reopening of schools.

“Those are some of the things that we still need to get right before we can even begin to have a conversation about bringing the entire system back,” Hersey said.

The district is in the process of convening a task force that includes parents and community members to look at the efficacy of online learning and how to improve the current model.

Other school board members, however, expressed regret that the district has not been more up-front with families about what it will take to get students back in schools - even if that prospect is, as many fear, a long way off.

Clarification 10/11/20 7:23 pm: This story has been clarified to reflect that Seattle Education Association reports having seen some, but not complete, indoor air quality data for school buildings.