Washington families have been trying to get up to speed on this new world of at-home schooling. This is the first week remote education is required across school districts since schools were shut down last month to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
It’s been a bumpy transition so far. The Seattle school district’s web portal for students, Schoology, has faced repeated outages. Parents are juggling multiple emails from teachers and Zoom lessons, all while trying to manage their own anxiety and the emotional needs of their kids who are disconnected from their normal routines and friendship circles.
Add to that the stress of caregivers who are trying to work from home, or parents who have lost jobs and are coping with financial strains. For families struggling to pay rent or buy groceries due to mass layoffs, making sure kids do online assignments becomes lower priority. Some are facing sickness as COVID-19 cases in the region continue to climb. And the closure of schools means particular stresses for families of students with disabilities who ordinarily receive one-on-one instruction.
Parents and students are trying to figure out how much of the work is required. Seattle Public Schools spokesman Tim Robinson said work is not being graded right now. The Tacoma school district said “we would like students to do their best on the work teachers assign. The work teachers assign will support what students have already learned and will set students up to be more successful in the future.” Spokesman Dan Voelpel said teachers are evaluating the work students turn in, but the district is still determining whether this work will count toward their grades.
State Superintendent Chris Reykdal has said that he’s not directing that assignments be graded. Katy Payne, a spokeswoman for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in an email that “during this closure, we have provided school districts with a lot of flexibility in this area. Should the governor determine he will extend the closure, we will definitely make a decision about how districts should be handling grading and granting credit.”
But there’s still a degree of confusion around what’s expected and required. One Seattle high school principal wrote in an email to parents that “it appears that some work will now be required and assessed.”
Some parents said they’re trying to view the work sent from teachers as suggestions rather than mandatory. Sarah Igawa has a kindergartener and a second-grader at Maple Elementary in South Seattle. She said she doesn't feel compelled to make her kids do all of the work sent by her teachers.
“The biggest thing for me is not focusing on academics, but seeing this as — there’s a global crisis going on, and that’s stressful for everybody,” Igawa said. “Maintaining peace and calm and helping everyone to be in a healthy place emotionally is the most important thing.”
Igawa said she's also trying to shift her focus beyond just her family by helping pick up and distribute donated meals from a Filipino restaurant, Musang, that has converted into a community kitchen to feed people in need during the pandemic.
The pressures and stress are compounded for parents of children with significant physical, cognitive or behavioral disabilities.
That sums up the situation for Daniela Hall right now.
She’s president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA and has a son named Dempsey in fifth grade with cerebral palsy. He's fine cognitively, but he has substantial physical disabilities.
Dempsey uses a wheelchair and needs help with almost all daily activities, from feeding to hygiene. At school he has an instructional aide with him all the time, and Hall said her family also has hired caregivers to come to their home for additional assistance. But now, with the school closure and the state’s stay-at-home order, he has none of that help.
Hall also has a daughter named Mila in third grade, and Hall works as a middle school teacher in a private school. So she's busy during the day teaching her own classes from home.
“I’ve been doing online remote learning for two and a half, three weeks, now, so I’m busy at the exact times that my own children need me to be with them,” Hall said.
Her husband is there, but he’s working from home, too. She said she’s lucky to have her mother-in-law living nearby to help out.
Hall said she doesn't think her son will be able to meet the goals that are set out in his individualized education program. She said she's not as concerned about that, though she said that makes her something of an anomaly in the special education community. But what really troubles her and other families is what Hall describes as very limited communication from the Seattle district about special education.
“The least the district could do would be to inform us — the families — to say that we are not forgotten,” she said. “But we heard nothing until very recently.”
The Seattle district appears to be trying in recent days to address that and published an FAQ specifically about special education. Hall said she's communicated with her son's teachers and specialists over the past week or so.
But she said she knows a lot of families are worried about how their children with disabilities will fare during this school closure. And that comes on top of frustrations about the district's approach to special education services that existed even before this current crisis.