Seattle schools could revert to distance learning if high absences persist


While awaiting the results of her COVID-19 test, Seattle schools teacher Caitlin Honig spent eight hours over the weekend reworking lesson plans for absent students who tested positive for COVID were exposed and need to be quarantined, or feel unsafe at school at this time.

As of last week, after winter break ended, Honig says about a third of his students are absent every day. This means that she needs to adapt her current lesson plans and class projects so that her students can do them at home and independently.

“What is happening right now is not working and is not sustainable,” said the social studies and language arts teacher at Franklin High School. “I am not able to do my job fairly because there are so many students absent and I cannot do two types of teaching at the same time. “

A week after the winter break ended, educators said they grew worried about their ability to teach safely as cases of COVID skyrocketed among students and teachers.

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Classes were canceled Monday and Tuesday in Seattle Franklin High School and Kimball Elementary School because of the lack of staff. Seattle public school leaders are also questioning whether to temporarily re-establish distance education.

“Right now, we’re working to determine if it will be all in person, all remote, or some in-person classes and some remote classes,” a statement from Seattle public school officials said. “This decision will be based on a review of staff attendance data.”

The neighborhood COVID-19 Dashboard, updated Monday evening, showed a sharp increase in the number of cases so far this month, with 803 cases in the first week of January. In the last week of school before the vacation, the district recorded 139 cases.

Seattle wasn’t the only neighborhood affected by COVID. Kirkland’s Lake Washington High School temporarily returned to distance learning on Monday due to staff shortages linked to COVID, other illnesses and absences. Redmond High also went remote on Tuesday.

Superintendent of Public Schools Chris Reykdal has warned parents that some local school districts may need to temporarily close over the next three to four weeks. While state-mandated preventive measures place schools among the safest public spaces, a staffing shortage can force an individual school district or building to close, he said.

Uncertainty over whether Seattle schools will return to online education has added to the anxiety students have felt since the start of the pandemic, said Natalie Weinstein, a counselor at Franklin High.

“Students have a lot of questions that we aren’t able to answer, like we’re going from a distance, and I think that adds to the anxiety and fear around COVID,” Weinstein said.

SPS did not offer a distance learning option to Franklin students on Monday, and union representatives at Franklin High, who are part of the Seattle Education Association, said there was no clear reason to that.

“Our staff are very concerned about the health and safety conditions of our building,” said a statement from the Franklin educators. “Many teachers have come out with positive COVID cases or are waiting for test results after showing symptoms. “

Honig, who took a COVID test because she was symptomatic and is still awaiting the results, believes Seattle schools should return to distance learning for a few weeks to give students stability and teachers the bandwidth to teach all their students equitably. In addition to modifying lesson plans to accommodate absent students, teachers have replaced colleagues during their preparation periods, reducing the time teachers spend on planning.

According to Franklin to Franklin Union Representatives.

Schools are ready to return to online learning if necessary, said Tim Robinson, spokesperson for Seattle Schools. Each student has a laptop or tablet that they can take home, and the neighborhood has hot spots for accessing the Internet.

In an email to Seattle Schools employees, the district said it would consider various factors in deciding whether to return to distance learning: its total enrollment, the layout of a school, the ability to maintain health protocols, student absence trends, community transmission rates and feedback from public health officials.

The district could switch to a 10-day distance learning period if the absenteeism rate of primary school students approaches 50%, if secondary schools reach an absenteeism rate of 40%, or if 10% of secondary schools are positive for COVID in several classrooms.

The district could also become completely remote if 50% of its K-5 and K-8 schools are distance learning, or if 25% of all SPS schools are remote.

In Lake Washington, the school district asked students at Lake Washington High School to learn independently at home on Monday and Tuesday, while staff switched to live online learning with a teacher. Students at Lake Washington High will take distance education Wednesday through January 18 and return to in-person learning on January 19.

“To be clear, this is not a case where the Department of Health dictates the shutdown due to an outbreak on campus,” Lake Washington officials said. “This decision is made by our district because of our inability to operate the school safely due to the lack of so many staff and the number of unfilled sub-positions.”

Chrissy Dahms, a social science teacher at West Seattle High, said she would like the district to temporarily return to distance learning as well. By Friday, just over 20% of the 144 students she sees during the day were out, roughly the same percentage as the school as a whole, according to Dahms. She said she had heard of some who had tested positive for COVID, and others who were afraid to come to school and get it.

Dahms worried that these students would be late, when they could participate if the classes were virtual. And it’s a particularly hard time for high school kids to miss, she said, as finals and the end of semester approach the end of January. With many concerned about their high school transcripts, “this is kind of their last opportunity to improve their grades,” she said.

“I have a feeling the students could handle it if we were to take an e-learning course for two or three weeks,” she added. “It’s not the same situation as a year ago, when there was no end in sight.” Distance learning would also be easier this time around, as teachers built a relationship with students over several months of in-person lessons, she said.

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Seattle Times reporter Nina Shapiro contributed to this report.

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