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Large classes, little social distancing at a Tukwila charter school worry parents and staff

Impact Puget Sound Elementary, an Impact Public Schools location in Tukwila, on October 26, 2021.
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Jeremy Paley

Parents at Impact Puget Sound Elementary are asking the state to step in to address the lack of social distancing in its classrooms. Staff have also have voiced safety concerns - but say they hold little power at the school.

While many schools in the region have spaced their desks to ensure at least three feet of social distancing, as advised by the CDC, students at Puget Sound Elementary sit facing each other at clusters of four or five desks, including when they unmask to eat meals and snacks.

A photograph a parent shared with KUOW of their child’s class shows maskless, snacking students sitting so close together that their chairs are touching.

“It’s not safe for the kids, with those kids sitting at the same table facing each other - plus, they’re not three feet apart,” said Amy, a parent at the school who asked that her last name be withheld for fear of retaliation.

Parents say that earlier in the school year, classes were as large as 39 students before the school opened another classroom at the end of September.

Impact Public Schools CEO Jen Davis Wickens said there were never more than 38 students in a class at Puget Sound Elementary this year, and that the largest class now has 32 students, with 30 per classroom on average.

Wickens said her schools are following Washington state Department of Health guidance to maintain social distancing as much as possible.

“Safety is centered in everything that we do,” Wickens said. “We are doing our best to keep our students a safe distance apart with furniture spaced three feet apart, and that's chest-to-chest, while also working to balance the need for students to have a joyful learning experience.”

She pointed to the schools’ Covid dashboard, which indicates 12 identified cases of the disease at Puget Sound Elementary this school year. Impact created the dashboard after the school year began in response to parent requests, Wickens said.

Class sizes are larger at Impact schools to accommodate a teacher and an assistant teacher in each classroom, Wickens said, which allows students “to receive small group instruction at a just-right level. Without two teachers in a room that just isn't possible.”

Puget Sound Elementary students are primarily Black and Latinx, including a large number from immigrant and refugee families. Many live with or are cared for by older or immunocompromised relatives - in other words, some of the groups most affected by Covid.

“I live in a multigenerational home. We have my mother-in-law with us,” said Impact parent Asmeret Habte. The risk of a child bringing Covid home from school “really keeps a lot of our families up at night. I know it keeps me up at night.”

To Habte, the school’s class sizes and seating arrangements feel like “gasoline next to a fire.”

In public testimony last week before the Washington State Charter School Commission, which oversees Impact and other charters, Habte pointed to Covid rates in the community surrounding the Tukwila school: it has more than double Seattle’s rates of infection, hospitalization and death.

Staff at the school have expressed concerns, too, especially behind closed doors.

“It doesn’t feel safe,” said one teacher who asked to remain anonymous. “We have bodies that are just so close together, and that feels really concerning.”

The state Department of Health requires that schools spread students out as much as possible, especially while kids are maskless and eating. That's not happening at Impact, the teacher said.

Before the school year began, “teachers were trying to remove things from their classrooms to make more space,” the teacher said, like the rug at the front of each class that serves as a separate learning area.

“Admin told us we could not, because we needed to have the rug,” the teacher said. “They’re very particular about how the classrooms need to be set up.”

Staff and parents say the large class sizes and Covid risk have contributed to a staff exodus since the school year began.

Eight teachers and assistant teachers, one front office operations employee, and a nurse who worked part-time at Puget Sound Elementary have left their positions since September, confirmed Impact spokesperson Rowena Yow.

Wickens acknowledged “unusual turnover” at the school this fall, but said the same is happening across the country. The staff who recently left, Wickens said, cited the “challenging moment, [or they had] families who are struggling with Covid-19 in their own personal lives.”

Parents say their attempts to get more eyes on the situation at Impact have gone nowhere despite multiple layers of supposed oversight.

The main agency that oversees charter schools is the Washington State Charter School Commission. It is responsible for ensuring the state’s publicly-funded, privately-operated schools comply with the law, including health department directives.

On Sept. 23, the commission's interim executive director, Krystal Starwich, told Habte in an email that "the Commission is aware of the concerns expressed by parents at Impact Puget Sound Elementary regarding class sizes and the health and safety of students," and said the commission was gathering information from the school.

Nearly one month later, however, Commissioner Christine Varela told KUOW in an email that the full commission was only made aware of parents’ concerns during the public comment portion of its Oct. 21 meeting, and has not “formally discussed these concerns as a body."

Although the commission is, by law, required to manage the charter schools it authorizes, akin to a typical public school board, "Commissioners typically do not engage in discussions about parent complaints of schools,” Varela said, “because we need to maintain objectivity if a complaint leads to an investigation and results in a corrective action.”

Along with the state commission, each charter school has a board of directors tasked mainly with overseeing business operations.

After a parent wrote to the Impact board last month saying Puget Sound Elementary “is quickly losing the trust of the community” due to overcrowding and lax health and safety standards, board member Tatiana Epanchin - who operates a Bremerton charter school - defended Impact’s handling of Covid-related complaints in an emailed reply.

Along with reducing class sizes, Wickens had met recently with dozens of parents at the school in “1:1 meetings and small group sessions to listen, learn and grow,” Epanchin wrote.

Epanchin asked the parent to, in the future, file such complaints directly with the school long before coming to the board.

“Moving forward, following this process is the best way to have your concerns addressed,” Epanchin wrote, and attached a link to Impact’s complaint form for Discrimination and Sexual Harassment.

Habte choked back tears in an interview. “Where is the oversight?” she asked.

“This would not be happening at a school where most of the students are white."

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