Amid vaccine confusion and widespread fears amongst teachers about the COVID-19 pandemic, Highline Public Schools still plans to resume modified in-person learning next month for those who want it.
As it stands, schools in the district have been closed to most students since last March, when Gov. Jay Inslee issued a shutdown order.
Though Highline isn’t formally part of the district, many students live in the area, are alumni, or — in the case of the Running Start program — are concurrently enrolled in a district high school and Highline.
After Gov. Inslee closed schools, instruction was forced to move online, with teachers scrambling to adjust and school officials struggling to get the necessary technology to their students.
“For the first couple months, there were kids who just couldn’t go, they couldn’t log on,” district Superintendent Dr. Susan Enfield said. “We have devices and internet connection for the vast majority of our kids now, which we didn’t have initially.”
And students and staff alike have adjusted, despite remote learning getting off to a rocky start, she said.
“As with anything, when you do it for the first time, it’s very hard, and you make mistakes,” said Dr. Enfield, who has been superintendent for eight years, and previously worked as an interim superintendent for Seattle Public Schools. “Now, our kids, our teachers, and staff are in a routine, and they’re making it work as best they can.”
These routines will soon be disrupted as the district moves away from fully remote learning.
The district has devised a detailed, multi-phased reopening plan for students in pre-K through fifth grade in accordance with recent guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Gov. Jay Inslee.
Beginning March 1, pre-K, kindergarten, first grade, and students in the Intensive Academic Center program will have the option to return to their classrooms for limited in-person learning.
Under the hybrid model, participating students will attend school for half-days four days a week, with the rest of their time occupied by distance learning.
The decision to resume in-person instruction is largely based on new guidelines from state and federal officials, Dr. Enfield said.
“Increasingly, from the CDC and even the governor, people are saying that with the proper safety measures in place, you can return students to school in a safe way,” she said. “Right now, what the state guidance has said is that even if your COVID numbers are high, you can bring elementary students back in class sizes of no more than 14 or 15, with all the safety measures in place.”
In mid-December, Gov. Inslee announced new, significantly relaxed disease metrics for districts to follow when deciding whether to reopen. This was a notable shift from his previous guidance, which encouraged districts to remain mostly remote in accordance with their county’s infection rates.
State health officials also said that even if schools experience an outbreak or dramatically increased transmission rates, districts won’t need to return to fully remote learning as long as the spread can be contained.
These announcements were the final push the district needed to move forward with its plan, even though most families and teachers weren’t on the same page.
In a recent survey of elementary families, only 41 percent said they wanted their children to return to the classroom for hybrid learning.
Dr. Enfield considers this statistic to be “a mandate.”
“If 40 percent of my families want to send their kids in for hybrid learning and other schools across the state and country are doing that, I feel I have a responsibility to provide them with that,” she said.
Returning to the classroom will be an option for families, not a requirement. The families who wanted to continue distance learning for their students were asked to commit to either hybrid or remote learning by Jan. 29.
The district has tracked COVID cases in students and teachers since last fall, said Sandy Hunt, who is president of the local teacher’s union, the Highline Education Association. However, it only provided parents with the data for the month of January before they were forced to commit to sending their kids back to the classroom or remaining at home.
Teachers will not be afforded the same choice as their students of whether they want to return to the classroom or remain at home.
“Our teachers are on contract,” said Dr. Enfield. “This is their job. We’re saying, we need you to report to work unless you have an accommodation that HR has approved.”
Dr. Enfield said it was a difficult decision.
“I won’t lie to you, it’s not a fun position to be in,” she said. “I’m very aware of the fears that a lot of people have, but we also have a responsibility to educate our children.”
Many teachers say they want to wait until COVID vaccines have been more widely distributed before going back to in-person learning.
A recent survey of district teachers revealed that “the vast majority” would rather wait for the vaccine before returning to their classrooms, said Hunt.
“They’re quite anxious to return, but between the vaccinations being so close and the spread of the new UK variant, it just seems like an unnecessary risk, not only for our members but for the community because the new variant seems to be more transmissible to students,” Hunt said.
Neither the district nor federal government agree that vaccines are necessary for a safe learning environment, however.
“We are getting pushback from teachers who don’t want to return and want to wait for the vaccine,” said Dr. Enfield. “The reality is, we just don’t know when that will be. The CDC and other experts are telling us we don’t have to wait for the vaccine, that we can come back safely now.”
At a White House news briefing on Feb. 3, the CDC director told reporters that teachers will not need to be vaccinated for schools to safely reopen.
However, shortly after, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that these comments were not “official guidance” from the CDC.
Hunt said while she knows the district is only following public health guidelines regarding teachers being vaccinated, it’s still important to many of her members.
“It’s not like they’re trying to do something out of line with what anyone else is saying, but it’s certainly of particular interest to my members that this part of King County has traditionally had higher COVID rates,” said Hunt.
She noted the number of families in the district who work in and around Sea-Tac Airport, who are more likely to be exposed to new coronavirus variants.
“It’s our parents who are the Lyft drivers, it’s our parents who are the food service workers at the airport,” Hunt said. “They’re the ones being exposed.”
Until essential workers like these have access to the vaccine, in addition to teachers, it doesn’t make sense to return, she said.
Vaccinations aside, the reopening plan will require classes to be dramatically reimagined, with teachers and students getting moved around depending on where they’re needed.
“The biggest concern beyond not being vaccinated yet is the way that the model has been rolled out,” Hunt said. “Some teachers are going to be put back in classrooms, and some will be remote based on the number of students whose parents chose for them to go back in-person.
“It just seems like it’s reconfiguring all these classes prematurely, since I believe more teachers and parents may be willing to return if there were wider vaccine distribution in the community.”
It’s important that students not be separated from their teachers, Hunt said.
“The parents have given feedback that they would like the teachers, particularly with the younger grades, to stick with their classes,” she said. “It’s been a very painful process to be starting right now, since by this point in the year these teachers have bonded with their students.”
Taking away this bond may have a negative affect on learning, she said.
“It’s just been hard on teachers to think about since it’s almost like starting the school year over again,” said Hunt. “This is the time of year where you’ve built up your relationships. You’re firing on all cylinders at this point and now, you’ll have to re-teach, and there will be a lot of turnover.”
It’ll be like starting all over again in September, she said.
Teachers will also be in new classrooms, or classrooms that have changed since they were last in them. To try to cope with these difficulties, the district will give teachers a couple days to transition, Hunt said.
As familiar as distance learning may be for much of the district, it still is not comparable to a physical classroom and in-person learning, for several reasons, Dr. Enfield said. Not being in classrooms can lead to what educators are calling “learning loss.” She said that as with the transition to distance learning, students and teachers will now rise to the occasion.
“I wake up sick about it every day,” said Dr. Enfield. “I also know that our kids and teachers are doing great work, so I refrain from thinking about learning loss. Yes, we’re concerned, but I don’t want to underestimate the resiliency of our kids.”
In addition to learning loss, the social aspect is not the same when you’re learning from a computer, or tablet. Dr. Enfield said that’s another reason why it’s important to get students back into class as soon as it is safe to do so.
“They’re losing out on the interaction, the friends, the support,” she said. “It’s just not the same, you know? Zoom class is not the same as a real class, I’m sorry, it’s not.”
However, a return to in-person instruction may not provide the socialization many parents are hoping for, said Hunt of the teacher’s union.
“The teachers worry that the parents might not realize how different school will be for the kids who return,” she said. “The social aspects parents are expecting their students will benefit from being in school will be much more limiting.”
Some parents have been asking for a return to live classrooms since last year, tired of assisting their children with schoolwork and desperate for some return to normalcy, despite the pandemic that continues to rage on across the country.
Even if their kids do participate in the hybrid learning plan, parents may need to adjust their expectations regarding personal responsibility.
Students will be in the classroom for only half their day, said Hunt, with the other half still being spent at home, like now.
The catch is, under the new plan students won’t be in Zoom classes while at home, aside from specialists like physical education and library. The rest of their time will instead be spent on assigned homework.
“Beyond seeing specialists, they won’t have any contact with an instructor in the afternoons, so the parents are going to need to be much more hands-on,” Hunt said.
This may disappoint parents who were looking to reduce the amount of time spent assisting their children with schoolwork by returning them to the classroom.
Overall, Hunt said she hopes parents will remain realistic and consider all the facts before sending their students back.
“It’s not a stable situation and it might not be what your child needs if there’s that much instability,” she said. “You can’t just assume, ‘Oh, I’m going to send my child to school and it’s going to be the same every day,’ because it’s not.”
Upon return, schools will look a lot different than last spring.
Strict health and safety protocols will be in place for students and staff from the minute they set foot into a school to the moment they walk out the door, said Dr. Enfield.
“We’re adhering to six-foot distancing and mandatory mask-wearing for all students and staff,” she said. “We’ve installed handwashing stations, signage to remind students to stay six feet apart, and we’re only bringing students back for two hours at a time so our janitors can clean between the morning and afternoon school sessions. Those are the biggest things.”
Hunt said she is pleased with the district’s implementation of safety and health protocols.
“I can’t really think of anything that is required that the district isn’t spending a lot of money on doing,” she said. “They’ve done a good job of spending their CARES [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] Act money on stuff like staff trainings, PPE [personal protective equipment] … all the things that everybody needs in order to bring more people back into buildings. That part has been good.
“They’ve controlled every variable that they have control over. It’s just all the unknowns that lead to anxiety.”
Once inside schools, the routine for students won’t be the same as before COVID either, said Hunt.
“They’re going to be there for two hours and 15 minutes,” she said. “It’ll take time to get into the building, stay six feet apart, wash their hands, and get settled, and then it’s the same thing when they leave. It’s hard to imagine there will be less than 30 minutes of time spent on public health hygiene, which only leaves an hour and 45 minutes left with their teacher.”
Dr. Enfield cited the safe return of some students last fall as further evidence toward the safety of in-person instruction.
“We believe that we can provide as safe an environment as possible, and quite frankly, we’ve had 150 students with high special needs in-person since November,” she said. “We know we can safely bring staff and students back into a building.”
Hunt said that everything didn’t go well with that return, however.
“They had one class that closed out of an abundance of caution,” said Hunt. “I can’t speak to the health issues of the students, that’s confidential, but they did have to close at the end of the first week, which was ironic.”
Hunt said risks remain.
“There have been teachers who’ve been exposed, whether they’re around kids or not,” said Hunt. “There are teachers who’ve had to quarantine, there’s a few teachers who’ve had COVID. All of those things happen, but there’s just a lot of nerves surrounding that happening in the school setting with a lot more people than we have there right now.
“The conversation could be different if the vaccine seemed further away. With the vaccine so close, why are we picking an arbitrary date to bring more students into buildings?”
Teachers aren’t expected to receive the vaccine until April, she said, at which point the district’s reopening plan will already be in progress.
This news, along with other things, hit teachers hard last month.
“There was kind of a triple body blow,” said Hunt. “You had the change in guidance [from Gov. Inslee and the CDC], then the announcement of the UK variants, then the vaccination schedule came out and they put teachers to get the vaccine in April.
“You’re putting the majority of our teachers in April and you’re telling us to come back earlier than that. It was just a lot for people to understand.”
Hunt said new variants of COVID-19 are a cause for concern.
“When you’re changing the metrics so much and introducing these new variants, the research that’s been done on opening schools might not be applicable if this new variant is around, based on what we’re seeing in Europe, where they’re having to close schools,” said Hunt. “We just feel like, why take a chance?”
Elementary students are thought to be at lower risk of COVID complications, but Hunt said there’s still cause for concern.
“A fourth-grade girl in Texas died of COVID the other day in her sleep,” Hunt said. “She wasn’t even in the hospital.”
The girl, Makenzie Gongora of San Antonio, Texas, had tested positive a mere three days prior, and was only experiencing mild symptoms.
“I don’t want to be that president who has a teacher die in my district,” Hunt said. “Teachers don’t want to be that teacher whose student dies. Yes, the likelihood is low, but we have plenty of examples across the nation.”
The whole pandemic has been difficult to navigate for Hunt as well as Dr. Enfield, and both women expressed frustration with the state and federal governments in their guidance, or lack thereof, over the past year.
“I’m not trying to paint the district as a bad guy,” said Hunt. “They’re doing everything they’re asked by the state. The frustration has been with the state government and the changes they’re making based on statistics and science.”
At the end of the day, incompetent leadership and unclear information have proven to be major problems over the past year, said Dr. Enfield.
“The lack of leadership at the federal and state level since this began has really, I think, inflicted a lot of pain and hurt and conflict in our communities, because there’s so much conflicting information,” she said. “People don’t know what to believe, or what to think. I’m just hoping that moving forward with the new information in D.C., we’ll get more factual and consistent information and guidance.”
As the country continues to navigate the frightening reality of a global pandemic that still isn’t under control, it’s important not to forget about the positives, said Dr. Enfield.
“I visit Zoom classrooms all the time and you know, they’re making it work,” she said. “Children are so much more resilient than we are. Whatever our reality is, that’s their normal. There is some amazing stuff happening with distance learning, even if it’s not ideal.”
Hunt is hoping people take one thing away.
“We want everyone to feel confident about the health interventions that we’re putting in place, but I never call it a safe return, because it’s not safe,” she said. “All we can do is reduce the risk as much as possible.”
For more information on the health and safety protocols being put into place by the district, visit https://www.highlineschools.org/return-to-learn/hybrid-learning/health-and-safety.
If you’d like more information on the district’s plan for resuming in-person instruction, visit https://www.highlineschools.org/about/news/news-details/~board/district-news/post/family-commitment-survey.