Monday, August 15, 2022
Aug. 15, 2022

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Seattle students demand masks and tests, plan sickout as school closures climb

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Last-minute closures in Seattle Public Schools this week have prompted students to organize a sickout, threaten a strike, demand improved safety protocols and call for more transparency from the state’s largest school district.

They’re not alone. Parents and teachers alike say the district failed to anticipate the need to shift to remote learning as a predictable wave of coronavirus cases caused school cancellations around the region.

During this second week back from winter break, classes were canceled because of coronavirus-related staffing shortages and because there weren’t enough substitutes to meet the demand, a trend that has plagued school districts across the country.

Seattle students say they’ve decided to join a national, student-led movement calling for remote learning and stronger school safety standards as COVID-19 cases are spiking.

“We understand this [school closures] could have been prevented if the district took necessary precautions,” said Natalya McConnell, a sophomore at Franklin High School. “When our school has the most cases out of the entire school district we know we needed to go remote (sooner).” According to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard, Franklin had 52 cases the first week of school in January.

Students say the abrupt closures have also taken away structure and heightened the anxiety for some of them.

Elsewhere in the region, most of the Lake Washington School District’s comprehensive high schools moved temporarily to remote learning until later this month. All of Northshore’s comprehensive high schools and two of its middle schools are going remote until Jan. 24, “due to substantial staffing shortages that are the result of COVID-related quarantines, general illnesses, and other absences coupled with our inability to continue filling substitute positions,” according to the district’s website.

Franklin High School in Seattle was shut for two days this week, then pivoted to remote learning Wednesday, and Lowell Elementary School was also being taught remotely Wednesday. Aki Kurose Middle and South Shore PreK-8 are also moving to remote instruction starting Thursday and going through Jan. 24.

But Kimball Elementary School remained closed for a third day in a row, although was expected to reopen Thursday, school officials said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Jonathan Cunningham, parent of a third-grader at Kimball. “It feels like we’re right back to 2020 where there is just no plan in place.”

Cunningham said that, at the very least, students should have been given the option to learn from home. But he hasn’t received any assignments or resources for his 8-year-old daughter.

KT Raschko, a music teacher at Kimball, said having a remote option would be better than shutting the school down because then teachers could communicate with their students directly. And teachers at Kimball were ready — they were told late last week to prepare for the possibility of going remote, Raschko said.

“We prepared packets of work in case students had difficulties with their devices,” Raschko said. “We made sure students had their chargers, headphones, login and user names.”

But on Wednesday, Kimball was still closed. Earlier this week, Seattle Schools released the factors and data administrators use to decide if classes need to be canceled or return to remote learning. Kimball didn’t meet the standards to go remote, said district spokesperson Tim Robinson.

The district will consider shifting to remote learning for 10 days if the student absence rate is approaching 50% at elementary schools, or if 10% of students and staff at a school have tested positive.

If 25% of Seattle’s 106 schools are being taught remotely, that’s when the district would consider having the entire district go remote, according to the district. Superintendent Brent Jones has the authority to decide when a school or the entire district will go remote temporarily.

“Because of the highly transmissible nature of COVID now, our community is in a fluid situation, so changes could be necessitated at any given time,” Robinson said in an email. “There is increased focus by school leaders and district leaders on finding solutions to staffing challenges at several schools. We are in a position to pivot as necessary in order to continue to prioritize the health and safety of our students and staff.”

During Wednesday night’s School Board meeting, Jones acknowledged the fear, anxiety and inconvenience school closures have caused the community. The district is doing everything possible to keep schools open for in-person learning, which is required by the state, he said.

“ … I just want to be clear that our school teams have done heroic tasks in order to keep our buildings open and in-person and learning is still happening, that is our business,” Jones said during the meeting.

The unpredictability of this week’s closures has caused disruptions for families that have had a ripple effect, said Ana Radzi, a substitute teacher in the district. Because she has three children who attend Kimball, she had to cancel a substitute assignment she had accepted this week. She couldn’t teach when she needed to look after her own kids.

“The closure is not just affecting Kimball families but everyone in the community,” Radzi said. “I’m not able to help out somewhere else.”

Walker Parsons, a senior at Franklin High, said he was walking to school Tuesday morning when he found out school was canceled. Parsons turned around and walked back home.

“It’s been a disruption for everyone, especially with it [school cancellations] being so abrupt like today when we were expecting to get instruction, whatever that meant,” Parsons said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We should have gone remote these last two days.”

Franklin students are expected to return to in-person learning Tuesday.

However, some Franklin students say they won’t be showing up Tuesday if Seattle Public Schools doesn’t meet student demands: to provide N95 masks, do weekly coronavirus testing and offer vaccines, including booster shots, at school.

McConnell, the Franklin sophomore class president, said some students plan to protest on Tuesday by not going to school if their demands aren’t met; she described it as a student strike. McConnell, along with other student government leaders, are leading the organizing efforts and have started a change.org petition.

Students from across the district also say they are planning to hold a sickout on Friday. Hundreds of students are expected to show up in front of the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence at 11 a.m., said Mia Dabney, a rally organizer and senior at Cleveland High School.

Dabney, who is also the Seattle NAACP Youth Council president, said students would love to go to school to learn and not worry about catching the coronavirus, but it’s hard when you’re “fearful for your life.” She said recent threats of violence that have been directed at Seattle Schools, including Cleveland and Franklin, have also made students feel unsafe at school.

She said she doesn’t want future generations to look back at this time in history and say, “How could schools let this happen?”

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