’50 square feet per person’: What Seattle schools may look like in the fall

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When school buildings in Seattle open up this fall, the start of the school day could look something like this:

Each student, arriving at a preset time and day to avoid spreading germs to other kids, will get their temperature taken. They’ll answer a few questions about how they’re feeling, clean their hands and receive a disposable mask if they don’t have one. Then they’ll set off to a classroom with about as many kids that can fit in the room while ensuring that there’s 50 square feet around each person.

They may attend school every day, a few times a week or not at all — depending on their age, and whether they and other kids opted into online schooling 100% of the time until local health officials clear a full return to in-person instruction.

That is the working vision for reopening the state’s largest school district, no matter how far along King County gets in Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan — barring any guidance to pull back from the state or local health officials.

District officials released more details about the plan to School Board members at a meeting on Tuesday, about a week after SPS announced it would start the next school year prepared to teach kids online and in person.

Under the plan, all families would have the option to continue online learning full-time. Officials ran through several labyrinthian scenarios for in-person schooling based on how many families choose a pure remote learning option at each grade level. The district has preliminary survey data that show most families prefer a return to an in-person setting, but officials noted that they needed to gather more feedback from families of Black students and other students of color.

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Here’s the general idea: Each school will separate the students returning to buildings in the fall into two or three cohorts at each school. Each cohort will alternate days to attend classes, the frequency of which will depend on their grade level, and how many other kids are opting into in-person classes. They’ll continue learning online on days they’re not in school buildings. Some students receiving special education services may be eligible to attend more often.

For grades 6-12, one day a week would be reserved for office hours, targeted support for students, and training for teachers.

There will be no more field trips, assemblies or cafeteria-style lunches, because large gatherings of kids can further spread the virus. Students would ride the school bus wearing masks, with the windows wide open, one district scenario poses.

District chief financial officer JoLynn Berge estimated it would cost the district more than $15 million to reopen with an arsenal of hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, more custodial staff and cleaning supplies.

At the meeting, most Board members seemed to approve of the cohort model, but expressed concern about not having a nurse at each school, and the limited reach of the district’s surveys to gauge families preferences for online learning or in-person instruction.

For example, one part of the plan proposes increasing the frequency and access to in-person instruction at 13 “strategic plan” schools, where the district has concentrated its efforts to improve outcomes for African American male students, a key demographic the district centers in its five-year strategic plan.

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A district survey about families’ preferences, which has garnered about 30,000 responses so far (SPS enrollment is around 54,000), captured only 25% of that target demographic. That limited data set showed African American male students’ families were less likely to want the option of in-person schooling compared to other racial groups in the district. But with so few responses, it’s unclear just how representative that data is.

“I’m struggling to comprehend we have a strategic plan based on African American males but we haven’t heard from 75% of them,” said Brandon Hersey, a Board member. “I want to hear a strategy for hearing from them as soon as possible.”

District officials responded by saying they would hold focus groups to capture feedback from more families.

The district will still have to work on parts of the plan over the summer, including bargaining with its teachers’ union over job duties in this new environment, and figuring out transportation.

And no matter the plan, the district will have to be able to pivot to the whims of a pandemic, which could shut down schools and force them entirely online again.

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