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Return to school in October: Seattle-area schools plan for hybrid model

caption: Two boys run towards Laurelhurst Elementary School on Friday, June 16, 2017, on NE 47th St., in Seattle, Washington.
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Two boys run towards Laurelhurst Elementary School on Friday, June 16, 2017, on NE 47th St., in Seattle, Washington.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Coronavirus cases in King County are low enough for school to resume in person to some degree, according to public health officials.

At least five school districts in the Seattle area are moving toward a hybrid model of in-person and online instruction come October, as the cases of coronavirus in King County have steadily dropped since the Labor Day weekend.

In most cases, the students returning to school buildings would be special education students and kindergartners.

Since students were sent home last spring, superintendents have been in discussion with King County-Seattle Public Health officials to gauge if and when it would be safe to bring students back into buildings.

They’ve looked to the Washington Department of Health’s “decision tree” – a framework put together to help school leaders decide when to hold in-person class again.

The decision tree recommends expanding in-person learning to the youngest elementary students – those who struggle most with online learning – once the community hits a moderate rate of Covid activity level, or 25-75 cases per 100,000 people in a 14-day span.

In the last 14 days, King County saw 55 cases per 100,000 people, meeting the moderate benchmark. Pierce County also hit the moderate target zone, with the same rate as King County.

And while many school districts are looking to Public Health for guidance on their transition, the next month of school looks different based on where you live.

Tacoma, Mercer Island, Lake Washington, and the Peninsula school districts are planning on a hybrid-model for their youngest students in the coming weeks. Other districts are making similar strides toward this shift, but haven’t said when their hybrid models might be implemented.

Tacoma Public Schools

Tacoma Public Schools hybrid transition will begin Sept. 28, according to a district communication on Sept. 18. The plan will bring the district’s youngest students and special education students back first.

Within the plan: Preschoolers will attend school on a reduced schedule in cohorts; kindergarten students will attend in person class four days per week; elementary special education students will have in-person class four days a week, with virtual learning on Wednesdays; and middle and high school special education students will return in cohorts.

First and second grade students will continue to learn remotely.

Mercer Island School District

The Mercer Island School District has already brought back about 40 students with special needs, for in-person services, according to an update from Superintendent Donna Colosky sent out to families on Sept. 14.

Now they’re looking at bringing back their youngest learners. Within the Mercer Island School’s timeline, kindergartners would transition to in-person learning by the end of October. After kindergartners transition, Mercer Island Schools spokesperson Craig Degginger said first and second graders would be the next in line to move to in-person class.

“I think you’ll find that among most districts, they’ve identified that the youngest learners can gain the most from learning in person,” Degginger said on the reasoning behind the decision. “It’s more difficult for them on remote learning than other grades.”

Shoreline School District

The Shoreline School District has been surveying families to gauge any interest for hybrid in-person learning, according to an email from Superintendent Rebecca Miner, sent out to families on Sept. 11.

Miner wrote that Public Health-Seattle & King County cautioned the district to wait and see how Covid cases were two weeks after Labor Day had passed – to see if the holiday resulted in a spike of infection rates. Public Health data shows no spikes in King County in the last 14 days.

So the district is planning when and which students will return to school for in-person learning. The specific grade levels that will have the option to attend some instruction face-to-face will be notified two weeks before their return.

Lake Washington School District

The Lake Washington School District set a goal of bringing kindergartners back to school in October, but wouldn’t provide a specific date.

Superintendent Jon Holmen outlined what action will be made before the transition, in an email to district families.

A survey for kindergarten and first grade families will begin on Sept. 23. It asks that parents choose between in-person learning or fully-remote learning for the remainder of the school year.

Educators will also be queried, to determine which staff are considered high-risk of becoming severely ill from coronavirus.

Peninsula School District

Kindergartners and first grade students of the Peninsula School District will begin in-person learning on Sept. 28, according to a school district communication.

The district made its decision to move some students to in-person learning after the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department said Covid case rates moved into the moderate range. The district has also gathered feedback from families with a district survey.

Families have the option to keep their students in remote learning.

Students transitioning back to in-person class will attend class four days a week. Wednesdays will be student independent work, so teachers can keep students learning in-person and those remotely on the same page.

Seattle Public Schools

Seattle students are currently fully remote, with no word yet of a hybrid transition in 2020.

Seattle Public Schools said in a district-wide communication that some in-person instruction would begin for a small number of special education students. They didn’t specify when that transition would happen.

The email also said that the district is talking with union leaders, employees, and the school board about public health guidance and other transitions to come.

“SPS students are settling into their second week of fully remote learning,” said Julie Popper, spokesperson for the Washington Education Association. “We don’t want to rush a transition into the classroom that could result in the spread of Covid and a return to remote- we need to do this transition right so we only do it once.”

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