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caption: Porsha Fields, right, waits with her son, 4th-grade student Toney Davis, before the first day of school at Wing Luke Elementary School on Wednesday, September 1, 2021, along Kenyon Street in Seattle. 
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Porsha Fields, right, waits with her son, 4th-grade student Toney Davis, before the first day of school at Wing Luke Elementary School on Wednesday, September 1, 2021, along Kenyon Street in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Here's what could send Seattle Public Schools back to remote learning

With record numbers of staff and students staying home due to the omicron variant of Covid-19, and a tenfold increase in case counts, parents, staff and students are wondering what it would take for the district to move schools back to online learning.

T

hroughout the pandemic, Seattle Public Schools has been circumspect regarding what would trigger school closures or reopening, and said that it works with public health officials to make those determinations. With staff out due to the ripple effect of Covid, however, a new issue has emerged: not enough adults in some buildings to operate school normally or safely.

Families, the teachers union, and some students called on the district over the weekend to be more transparent about its criteria for reverting to remote learning as omicron leaves some buildings with staffing gaps and keeps thousands of students home due to illness, exposure to Covid or simply because their parents feel school is unsafe with this wildly contagious variant still yet to peak.

A mass effort to test students and staff last week showed positive results for between 3% and 4% of those tested. Roughly 14,000 staff and students were tested. That is partly why the district's Covid dashboard saw a major uptick in cases; the contagious omicron variant, of course, is the main reason.

Seattle Public Schools cannot decide on its own to move the entire district to remote learning. The superintendent could, however, close individual classrooms or buildings on an emergency basis, including staff shortage. To shift the entire district online would require direction from Public Health Seattle-King County or direction at the state level.

In a letter to community partners on Monday, Deputy Superintendent Rob Gannon laid out some of those criteria, and acknowledged that for health and safety reasons, "some classrooms or schools may need to transition to remote instruction for brief periods."

Keep those iPads and laptops charged

Gannon wrote that the decision would vary by school, including which staff were absent, the building's physical layout, the school's ability to maintain safety protocols, student absence trends, community transmission rates and input from public health officials.

Some of the factors the district says could potentially trigger a shift to remote learning:

· Elementary student absence rate is approaching 50% consider remote instruction for up to 10 calendar days

· K-5 and K-8 schools have 50% of their classrooms in remote, monitor for 2 to 3 days then consider full school remote

· 10% of core group of students and staff COVID positive, consider remote instruction for up to 10 calendar days

· An absentee rate of 40% of students in a secondary school, consider remote instruction for up to 10 calendar days

· 10% of secondary students are COVID positive across multiple classrooms, consider remote instruction for up to 10 calendar days

· 25% of all SPS schools are 100% remote, consider taking district remote

· Unfilled positions in a school creates unmanageable operational and/or safety risks

· 50% to 100% school leader/Covid Site Supervisor absence due to confirmed COVID case consider remote instruction


Although state officials including Governor Jay Inslee have stressed that school must be in-person this year, there are exceptions that allow remote learning temporarily, said Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal in an interview.

"You can go remote when the local health officials say that they are worried about cases. You can go remote if they can't staff the building safely, because too many staff are infected or called in sick," Reykdal said.

Once remote, though, schools must provide 70 percent live instruction, Reykdal said. That is, teachers must be available to students during that percentage of the school day even if students are partly working independently or in groups.

If schools must close entirely — if they lack the staff to meet the requirements for remote learning — districts can apply for waivers at the end of the school year so they don't have to make up lost instructional time, Reykdal said.

Franklin High School and Kimball Elementary School were both closed Monday due to staffing shortages, and Kimball will remain closed Tuesday. Staff at Kimball said there were so many special education staff absent last week that two students were left unattended and "in grave danger."

District spokesperson Tim Robinson said he did not have current data regarding staff absences district-wide.

Seattle Education Association President Jennifer Matter says that she wants school to be in-person.

"I'm kind of I'm nervous right now," she said, as case counts rise.

"The district is going to have to decide: Is it better to pivot some schools to be remote now while educators are still healthy and can continue to teach?" she said. "Or wait until we have so many educators that are sick and absent, and we just close schools?"

At Franklin, along with many staff out, 30 to 50 percent of students were absent in teacher Caity Honig's classes last week, she said. So many staff had called in sick at the start of the week — including school administrators — that it was unsafe to hold classes, Honig said. She supports shifting to remote learning until the omicron surge is over.

"I care about all of my students and their learning," Honig said, "and I cannot equitably teach both at school and the students who are at home in quarantine."

"If I can just know for the next two weeks we are all going to be virtual, it would be a lot more sustainable, safe, and also just less stressful, as opposed to this every day 'Are we going to have school? Are we not going to have school?'" Honig said.

For the time being, though, Honig is home either way. She's awaiting results from a PCR test after she developed symptoms during the school day Friday.