Kamari Johnson is 11 years old. She’s trying to make the best of remote school, including keeping up with orchestra class, which means playing violin at home by herself.
She remembers what it was like to play music together with other students as an ensemble, back in fifth grade, back before the coronavirus.
“I would compare how I sound to them to actually get it right,” Kamari said. “Now I can’t really do that.”
Like so many things, COVID-era school is just not the same as being in class with other kids. Young people have had to put a lot of their lives on hold during the pandemic. They’ve navigated major transitions all via computer screen from their bedrooms. Kamari finished elementary school in the Kent district last spring during remote learning. She began middle school in the Renton district in the fall, but she hasn’t gotten to walk the halls or meet her teachers in person.
“I’ve never been to the actual school that I go to. I’ve never been to the inside,” she said.
She had dreamed of finally being a middle schooler, having multiple teachers, stashing her stuff in her locker. But one of the most important things – making friends – is next to impossible in remote learning. Most students don’t turn on their cameras. The only way they communicate is through the chat box, and she says teachers sometimes shut that off.
“I do want to meet new people, but I just don’t know how with the chats and not really getting to talk to people and stuff like that,” she said.
Kamari really wants to go to school in person. Her mom, Jasmine Raelynn, is not so sure.
“I’m really torn as to what I’m going to do when that time comes because we don’t want the sickness in our household, just like anybody else,” Raelynn said.
The Renton district says it’s working on plans to bring middle schoolers back to classrooms but has not set a date. With so much uncertainty this school year, Raelynn is wondering what will happen in the fall. To her, there are still a lot of unknowns: What will happen with the new variants of the virus? How will schools handle lunchtime?
“No one knows what it’s going to look like, and it’s something getting talked about every single day,” she said.
It may seem far off, but a lot of public school parents are thinking right now about what school will consist of in the fall. At the moment, things feel chaotic. The dates for bringing younger kids to classrooms keep changing, and older kids in many places have no idea when they’ll return to school buildings. So families seeking normalcy are looking to fall, but they’re discovering the outlook for returning to school as it was before the pandemic is murky.
PARENTS SEEKING OPTIONS
Thinking about sending her daughter back to school makes Raelynn fearful. For a lot of other parents, the opposite is true. Continuing remote learning is what strikes terror in their hearts. That includes Colleen Skipper, a mom in Seattle.
“I can’t let my son go another year remote, another year without being in a classroom with teachers, learning in person because remote learning is just inferior,” she said.
Skipper is one of many parents not waiting around to see if the Seattle school district can figure it out. Six months into the school year, Seattle is only now bargaining with its teachers union over bringing some students in special education and kids in pre-kindergarten through first grade back to classrooms.
Skipper and her husband have been big believers in public education – her husband taught in Seattle Public Schools for eight years. But the stresses of remote learning, especially for their younger son in third grade, led to a lot of tearful days. They moved him midyear to a Catholic school, which he now attends in person twice a week.
“The days when he gets to go in person are just the happiest days. He wakes us up and tells us that it’s an in-person day for school, and everything other than having to wear khaki pants, he’s super excited about,” she said.
Now they’re waiting to hear if there’s a slot for their older son in sixth grade. And Skipper said she knows other families thinking about private school.
“As soon as Seattle Public Schools makes it more clear and more apparent that they don’t have plans to be in person next year, I think it’s going to be a mass exodus,” Skipper said.
Catholic schools are seeing a surge of interest from families now, said Kristin Moore, director of marketing and enrollment for the Archdiocese of Seattle Office for Catholic Schools. Most of the 72 schools in the region are now offering in-person instruction, at least in a hybrid model, she said.
“We’ve had a lot of parents that have come our way and said, 'Hey, I never really considered Catholic education before, but considering we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and I have to work full time and my husband has to work full time, we need our kids to be in school. We want our kids to be in school,’ ” she said.
Right now, there’s almost zero information from Seattle Public Schools about returning to school in person in the fall. Superintendent Denise Juneau declined an interview request.
Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Tim Robinson said in an email that district leaders are hopeful that COVID transmission rates will drop and that schools will be able to offer in-person instruction to “as many students as possible this fall.”
But the lack of clarity is causing parents to seek other options. Robinson said more than 1,900 students requested to transfer out of the district this school year, and while Seattle Public Schools doesn’t have information about where all of them went, more than 1,100 students left to do homeschooling, attend private school or an online public school.
Seattle School Board President Chandra Hampson said, in some ways, she’s been frustrated by the slow pace of bringing kids back for face-to-face learning and especially the district’s sluggish roll-out of an outdoor-learning pilot program she and other board directors championed. But she said she does not want to see a confrontational labor standoff. Disputes over in-person learning have led to acrimonious negotiations and teacher protests in Bellevue and Chicago recently.
“I’m not wanting to get into a really adversarial relationship with our union,” she said. “I don’t think that would do us a lot of good right now in terms of where we need to get to as a school district.”
With so much uncertainty around the return to in-person school this spring, parents are trying to read the tea leaves about the fall, but school district leaders around the region say they don’t have a lot to tell them yet.
“I want the answers as much as our families do,” said Susan Enfield, superintendent of the Highline district, which serves South King County communities including SeaTac, Burien and Des Moines. “None of us knows what the fall will look like.”
Enfield said a lot will depend on how quickly vaccines roll out. Because of where educators fall in the state’s prioritization timeline, they will likely have had a chance to get vaccinated by fall. It’s less clear when kids will be able to get immunized, and schools may still have to follow protocols to limit transmission, including reducing class sizes.
“I think that the biggest factor will be the guidance we receive from the Department of Health, and the number one aspect of that guidance will be around are we still required to maintain six feet of social distancing,” said Damien Pattenaude, superintendent of the Renton School District.
“As long as there’s six-foot distancing, we’re in hybrid,” Enfield said. “You can’t fit every child in a classroom with six-foot distancing.”
“Most of our classrooms are anywhere from 800 to 1,000 square feet. But in that square feet, there’s teachers' desks, bookshelves, so they’re not really 800 to 1,000 square feet,” said Gustavo Balderas, superintendent of the Edmonds School District. “It’s how many kids can you bring into that space safely.”
The Washington Department of Health said the guideline for maintaining six feet of physical distancing remains in effect. If that doesn’t change by fall, what that likely means is that students may attend in person only a couple of days a week. And setting up a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning requires agreement from teachers unions.
Larry Delaney is president of the Washington Education Association.
“There’s many that see us as the impediment to returning to some form of in-person teaching and learning, and I’d like to turn that around a little bit and highlight the fact that we’re advocating for safe schools,” Delaney said.
He said local unions are pushing for strict adherence to six feet of distancing as well as proper sanitation and finding enough substitute teachers.
Ashley Jochim, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, said getting kids into classrooms in the fall depends on district leaders assuaging the doubts of educators and families that they can meet the health and safety requirements.
“One of the biggest barriers to reopening schools and returning to business as usual really comes down to fear and mistrust in the system, and those things aren’t going to disappear just because everyone gets a vaccine and they probably won’t dissipate anytime soon just because of the ever-evolving contours of the pandemic,” she said.
'BEST THING FOR OUR STUDENTS’
Brandon Guthrie, an assistant professor in the departments of global health and epidemiology at the University of Washington and co-editor of the COVID-19 Literature Situation Report, said that as students have gone back to in-person learning around the world, “we have seen that it has resulted in actually very small numbers of transmissions that are directly related to the schools, which is a really good sign. I think it speaks to the success of a lot of the mitigation strategies that schools are putting in place.”
“What I would really like is that everybody is working from the perspective that it is the best thing for our students to be back in the classroom, to be able to interact with their friends and to be able to have that close interaction between students and teachers that we know is a beneficial environment for learning,” he said.
But as this pandemic disruption to schools continues, families are left waiting and wondering. And while some families have been pushing for in-person learning, there’s a racial divide.
In a Renton district survey of families with children in preschool, elementary school and those in self-contained special education programs, white parents were more likely to say they’d send their kids to in-person learning than Black parents. Fifty-four percent of white families said they wanted to send their children to classrooms compared with 42 percent of Black families. One reason may be the disproportionate toll of the pandemic on communities of color.
Jasmine Raelynn said what she wants is just a lot more communication from school leaders.
“I could be swayed if I knew more about what it’s going to look like behind closed doors in the fall, who’s going to get vaccinated, who’s not, are they checking temperatures – I want to know those things,” Raelynn said.
At the same time, she’s listening to her daughter, Kamari.
“I hear her loud and clear that she really wants to be around other kids,” she said. “I want to be there for my kid and hear her wants and her needs and still, of course, have her safety in my forefront, but I really want her to experience her childhood.”
For Kamari, part of that includes walking the halls of her middle school and forging friendships not through a chat box but face to face.