SEATTLE — It’s been two weeks since Seattle Public Schools shut down because of the coronavirus, and parent Jeniffer Trice said she was just barely holding on.
On Monday, the first day school districts were required to provide some type of education services during their state-mandated closure, Trice — a single, recently unemployed mother with multiple sclerosis — and her five school-aged children started the day by watching Seattle Public Schools educational programming on TV.
Emails began pouring in from Washington Middle School, where two of her kids attend, directing her to find assignments for her kids on Schoology, an online platform where teachers can post materials and communicate with families. Not helpful, she said, because the family only has one desktop computer and no printer.
“I’m trying to keep my kids academically up-to-date,” Trice said. But “I need the tools and the materials to be able to do that.”
Across the Puget Sound region on Monday, teachers, parents and students told similar stories of confusion and uncertainty over how schoolwork would be handled during the unprecedented closure. After initially telling districts to avoid providing distance education because they couldn’t ensure equitable access to all families, the state reversed course last week, issuing loosely worded guidelines that left many school systems scrambling to figure out a way to keep kids learning outside of the classroom.
Districts had to assemble those plans after they were already ordered to shut down, so many teachers didn’t have a chance to brief students in-person about what may come next.
On Monday, students reported not knowing if they should even complete their assignments because most districts aren’t grading. Teachers say they’re getting feedback from parents that they’re doing too much, or not enough. And parents say they’re struggling to balance their own work with that of their kids.
Several school districts in the region said they had plans to address the state’s call to provide instruction, including issuing laptops and other support to students, but some said they needed more time to make it happen.
It’s a tremendous challenge to “try to re-create the classroom experience in just two weeks with all the societal and technological limitations faced by a high-poverty urban school district,” said Dan Voelpel, spokesman for the Tacoma School District.
Most districts aren’t taking attendance or giving letter grades. In Seattle, teachers are supposed to check with families twice a week and provide regular materials for students to learn online and in print at two dozen school sites. In Federal Way, the district sent six weeks worth of learning packets to students in the mail. And in Bellevue, the district expects teachers to send digital lessons to families by 8 each morning.
The state’s new guidelines leave room for interpretation. In general, schools are expected to monitor student progress and contact families on a regular basis. But among school districts, and even between schools, there is no consensus on what should be provided at this moment.
Almost every middle and high school student in Bellevue and Edmonds has an assigned laptop. In Seattle, only 60% of high school students do.
Districts also vary on whether the instruction should review old material or explain new concepts. In Lake Washington, the district plans on eventually rolling out new lessons while Seattle and Tacoma have left that choice up to individual schools.
Kristina Katrel, a teacher at Ballard High School who says she’s struggled to reach some of her students since the closure, says she’d rather focus on students’ well being and their mastery of basic skills rather than pushing out new material.
“It’s silly — people are dying, what does it matter if they didn’t write an essay?” said Katrel.
Sam Friedman, a fifth-grade teacher at Wedgwood Elementary School, whose colleagues decided not to provide new instruction for now, feels caught between making sure instruction isn’t inequitable and making sure students don’t start out behind. Friedman worries about students ending the year without learning fractions.
By the end of the day Monday, as teachers uploaded resources and documents to the cloud, students said they wanted more clarity on what was expected of them in order to earn credit for their classes. Adolfo Ramirez, a senior at Chief Sealth International High School in Seattle, said he’s only received messages from half his classes so far. Jacquelyn Jimenez Romero, a senior at Franklin High School, also in Seattle, said she’s waiting for more input on how she should study for her Advanced Placement exams.
“There’s just so much uncertainty with how this is going to play out,” said Jimenez Romero. “A lot of students are saying, ‘I don’t know which of these assignments apply to me.’ ”
There were also stories of hope from Monday: teachers setting up remote classrooms and recording videos of themselves to greet students; schools purchasing gift cards for families in need.
Late last week, a teacher from Bailey Gatzert slipped some learning materials and a note into Trice’s mailbox for one of her sons after hearing he wasn’t receiving many resources for his disability. “You are definitely someone who will go far and make the world a better place,” the note read.
“That was more helpful than any websites or links he could give me — those positive words of encouragement,” said Trice.