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One year since Seattle schools closed, here are some hurdles to reopening

caption: Washington State Governor Jay Inslee speaks with special ed Pre-K teacher Michelle Ling in her classroom at Phantom Lake Elementary School in Bellevue, Wash. Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
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Washington State Governor Jay Inslee speaks with special ed Pre-K teacher Michelle Ling in her classroom at Phantom Lake Elementary School in Bellevue, Wash. Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
(Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times via AP, Pool)

Kids are returning to school across the country, but the Seattle School District remains almost entirely remote. With teachers eligible for the vaccine, and rates decreasing, what’s going on?

The short version is that the district announced a return to school for March 1 without an agreement with the teachers, who balked and said they wanted assurances that the district would keep them and students safe.

What’s new?

This week, the administration and the teachers have rounded a corner, says Julie Popper of the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Seattle Schools announced this week that students would start returning to school on March 29. This schedule seems more firm than others given, because the union and district say they jointly agreed to the date, and aim to put it in ink in a tentative agreement this week or next.

The first group will be preschool students and some who receive intensive special education services. (Currently, about 150 students with disabilities are being served in-person, one-on-one with staff.)

The district and union still have not negotiated a return for kindergarten and first grade students, per the district’s initial plan (more on that later).

Now that teachers can get the Covid vaccine, will they return?

The vaccine alone is not enough for the Seattle teachers’ union to agree to return their buildings, Popper said.

Some school staff point out that even if they are vaccinated, most students are too young to receive their shots. That means children could still, in theory, infect each other and bring the virus home to their families. Research shows that children are not likely vectors of the virus, however.

This doesn’t mean teachers want to wait until all students are vaccinated. Rather, they want the district to outline safety measures and explain the risks to families.

Eve, a teacher from Seattle, called into KUOW’s The Record show to say distancing would not be possible in her special education class.

There’s been a “lack of transparency about safety,” she said. “It’s infuriating that the district has put us between a rock and a hard place.”

School staff also want to know if they’ll have to use sick days if they must quarantine after coronavirus exposure.

School safety measures

One sticking point in district and union negotiations has centered on how ready schools are to restart with required safety precautions in place.

Among the concerns: Could the union trust the district when it said airflow was at adequate levels to prevent viral transmission?

Many staff members have pointed out that windows in their classrooms open only slightly, or not at all. Because many Seattle school buildings are old, HVAC systems have not all been up to par. But union and district leaders did school walk-throughs together on Monday, alongside HVAC experts, said Jennifer Matter, president of the Seattle Education Association, and did not find substantial problems.

“Which we actually see as a positive step forward, because it is one way that we are partnering,” Matter said.

The union has pressed the district to put in writing more of its health and safety precautions. The district says it has met all of the standards, will conform to state and federal guidelines, and is ready to go.

Concerns about equity

A survey the district sent to some families in January asked whether they wanted to return to school or stay remote.

White families were those most enthusiastic about returning to the school building, with 56 percent saying they would. Black and Asian families were far less interested, with 33 percent of those families saying they would return to the classroom. About 46 percent of Latino families said they would return.

Sebrena Burr, former president of the Seattle Council PTSA, offered a personal reason for her family’s desire to stay home: Remote learning has been a better fit for her teenage daughter.

“We are not in a rush to get back,” she said. “A lot of Black students, especially mine, are thriving. In our schools, there are a lot of microaggressions.”

Families will still have the option to stay in a 100% remote learning model this year, according to SPS.

What the science says about returning to school

The research says it’s safe and that students rarely transmit the virus to each other, or to staff.

The research has surfaced surprises, too: In Germany and Rhode Island, students who attended school had lower Covid rates than students who were remote.

Ventilation and masking is crucial, as made clear by an outbreak at a high school in Israel, where masking was optional and the air was recycled.

Is this worth the risk?

Get students back into the classroom as soon as possible, said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s.

“The early results are frankly concerning,” he said. Children are falling behind, more so in math than in reading — and more so for kids of color.

“On the social emotional side, we are seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “There’s increased anxiety and depression and isolation. It’s not natural for children to not be around other people.”

What’s happening with school districts in other big cities?

While neighboring districts with similar Covid rates are returning to school, Seattle would be better compared to other big city districts in Democratic states. Sixty-five percent of big city school districts have reopened in some capacity.

Meanwhile, others are slow to resume in-person classes. In Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, for example, teachers have pushed back on school administration, some saying that the vaccine is not enough to send them back.

What’s next?

Next will be kindergarten and first-graders, Popper said. The district has also said it will continue to negotiate the return of K-1 grades this year.

Behind the scenes, rumors have swirled that the district has given up on returning these younger grades this school year. “There’s a lot of cynicism about the moving targets,” Popper said.

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