Concerned about learning disruptions and teachers’ health, parents hesitant to return kids to classroom

Edmonds School District Superintendent Gustavo Balderas (top right) speaks to other district leaders on Jan. 26. (Image via Youtube)

As Edmonds School District leaders prepare to reopen school buildings to students, they are facing concerns about disruptions to student learning and educators’ health that make parents hesitant to return kids to classrooms for the remainder of the school year.

Since schools closed last March, district staff have been juggling how to create methods for remote learning while developing plans to safely bring students back into schools. Last November, the district implemented the first stage of its four-phase school re-entry plan, returning nearly 150 students enrolled in special education and intensive support. Now, the district is preparing to move into Stage 2, which would bring K-2 students back using the hybrid learning model approved last July.

At its Jan. 26 business meeting, the Edmonds School Board of Directors received several public comments — submitted prior to the meeting by parents, teachers and community members –pleading to the board not to return students and teachers to classrooms. 

“We can’t imagine how long it will take kids to adjust to new routines when they suddenly find themselves with a new teacher and many new peers with whom they have not established any kind of relationship,” said district parent Sean Murphy.

Murphy, who has three students enrolled in the district, said transitioning from remote to in-person learning likely disrupts the routines they have established during an already challenging time. During his comment — read by Director Nancy Katims — Murphy asked if there would be a way to transition without distracting learning and switching teachers.

“We fear this will be another factor in further decreasing teacher’s ability to effectively teach kids what they need to know this year,” he said.

The prospect of students having to switch teachers have made many parents hesitant to return to in-person learning, and they have been requesting more information about what in-person learning would really look like. Many of the answers are unavailable at this time as plans for returning more students to in-person learning continue to hinge on negotiations between the district and teachers’ union. Per the district’s rules for bargaining, neither party can speak publicly until a deal is struck.

However, without knowing what in-person teaching will look like, a large number of teachers are hesitant to commit to returning to classrooms, particularly without having been vaccinated. According to district parent Sarah Richard, some teachers find returning to in-person teaching before being vaccinated “terrifying,” meaning many may continue to teach remotely and the confusion has many worried students will not keep the same teacher for the remainder of the year.

“To change teachers now would be horribly detrimental to both my children,” she said. “I wish rather than create more choice the district would consider other options beyond those on the table for the remainder of the year.”

The lack of information has led many to accuse district leaders of a lack of transparency — accusations the district has faced in the past. In response, Board President Deborah Kilgore said they are working with students’ best interest in mind.

“Everyone I’ve interacted with in the district — the teachers, the students, the parents and all of us on the board — we’re trying to do the right thing and we’re trying to do the best that we can for our kids this year,” she said.

Superintendent Gustavo Balderas called the work a “numbers game,” meaning the number of teachers who could return to in-person learning — potentially disrupting established online classrooms — is dependent on the number of students returning. Though unable to provide answers at this moment, Balderas assured families they would know as soon as possible.

“When we do get resolution through bargaining, we will share the model,” he said. “We will be very explicit with the community regarding the possibility of the student not having the same teacher. We will be very specific.”

Additionally, Balderas explained that remote learning is not a viable option for many students who will not be prepared to advance to the next grade level, a situation that particularly affects students of color. Since the start of the pandemic, communities of color have been reported to be impacted the most in several areas, and Balderas said education is no different.

Citing a report from McKinsey & Co., he said students of color are reported to lose six to 12 months of learning with schools closed. Conversely, he said, their white peers were reported to lose four to eight months. In Edmonds, students of color account for roughly 53% of enrollment.

“(Remote learning) is working for some kids, this is not working for many other kids, so we’ll continue to work to do the best we can,” Balderas said.

Speaking to vaccinations, Assistant Superintendent Dana Geaslen said the district has no control over when teachers are eligible to be vaccinated. Under the state’s existing guidance for Phase B1, school employees 50 years old and older will be eligible for vaccines starting in February. A larger group of educators would not qualify until April, under Phase B4.

Earlier this month, Balderas — along with Mukilteo School District Superintendent Alison Brynelson and Everett Public Schools Superintendent Ian Saltzman — sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee asked that school staff be moved up in the state’s COVID-19 vaccination timeline to assist with the districts’ efforts to bring students back into the classroom.

Geaslen also said “hybrid” is a broad term that has different meanings and districts across the nation are using a variety of methods to return to in-person learning.

“Some districts are half days, some districts are full days, some districts are one day in a pod model that goes forward, and we just see kids once (a week),” she said. “I think there’s a plethora of ways that districts are serving kids.”

Since the re-entry plan prioritizes returning younger students first, the district has been looking at other options for middle and high school students. During the board meeting, staff discussed plans to allow school buildings to open remote learning sites similar to the one opened at the former Alderwood Middle School campus for McKinney-Vento students.

Aside from receiving help with school work, the hubs could be resources for students needing social-emotional support. Under remote learning, students have reported feeling less connected to their teachers and peers, and the data continues to show a steady decline, said Assistant Superintendent Helen Joung.

“The trend is going down and our kids are feeling more disconnected as we speak,” she said.

The district has taken other tentative steps toward returning and bringing students back together. Earlier this month, more than 500 student athletes registered for outdoor conditioning sessions. 

“It’s really exciting to see kids coming back on campus again,” Geaslen said.

In other business, the board voted to approve school improvement plans for the 2020-21 school year. Every year, each school is required to develop and adopt a school improvement plan or process, with annual review for progress and necessary changes.

Typically, the plans are submitted by mid-October for approval, but the date was pushed back due to scheduling conflicts with the pandemic.

Also during the meeting, the board received an update from the district’s finance staff regarding enrollment projects for the next year. According to Finance Director Lydia Sellie, staff are anticipating a “modest” increase of 67 full-time equivalent (FTE) students at the start of the 2021-22 school year. Sellie said staff have been working with “conservative” estimates due to the unknown variables related to COVID.

Sellie said staff are budgeting for the slight enrollment increase. She said the estimate is “very conservative” but also said the district to “keep a pulse on things and increase our staffing if we start to see our kids come back.”

Under unfinished business, the board:

– Approved multi-tiered systems of support, which aim to improve educational and behavioral outcomes for all students by combining systematic assessment, decision-making and a multi-tiered services delivery model.

– Revised multiple distinct policies, including those regulating dangerous weapons on school campuses, student immunizations and life-threatening health conditions, and alternative learning experience courses.

– Held first readings for a new policy that would limit immigration enforcement on school property and for a proposed revision to the district’s policy regarding nutrition, health and physical education. The revision would guarantee students have 20 minutes to eat school meals.

During the discussion on immigration policy, Board Director Gary Noble asked about a section of the policy that would prohibit staff from asking students about their city of birth. According to Noble, schools often celebrate students from other countries and tailor lessons to incorporate their countries of origin.

“I think every school I’ve been in has had, displayed in the lobby, either flags or a map showing the origins of all their students to celebrate the diversity of their school,” he said.

In response, Human Resources Director Debby Carter said schools may ask but not require students share place of birth per guidance from the American Civil Liberties Union and the state attorney general’s office.

“As we know, immigration status can be something that can cause stress and trauma and anxiety,” she said.

–By Cody Sexton

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