As Seattle Public Schools delay reopening plans, other schools share what works

SEATTLE — Seattle Public Schools are delaying bringing their pre-K through first-grade students back to the classroom until at least the end of March.

But many private schools in Seattle and other public school districts have already reopened.

Nearly a year into the pandemic, parents say remote learning with their kids has not gotten much easier.

“I have been struggling,” said Meiqing Ye, a Seattle parent with two kids in the Seattle school system. “I need to go to work every day. Also, my husband goes to work every day. It’s really hard for us to assist the kids at home.”

Saint Joseph’s - a private Catholic school in Seattle - started bringing kids back last September. By now, they’ve figured out what works. All their elementary students are now in the classroom some of the time, and middle schools will start returning next week.

“What’s been really important is the cohorting - so students stay within their classroom of students,” said Mary Helen Bever, Saint Joseph’s primary school director.

At all times, students stay within their 15-person bubble. They are distanced and wear masks, and lunch is served in the classrooms.

When it’s time for recess, the kids put on color-coded vests and use matching equipment of the same color, so it’s easy to see who and what is in your cohort.

“The kindergartners call it our little family. They are so, so sweet,” said Becca Foss, a social-emotional development teacher at Saint Joseph’s.

Windows stay open, and the school has a variety of air filters and purifiers. Drop off times for students in the morning are staggered.

Foss says the kids have no trouble remembering or following the rules, and it’s all gone even better than expected.

“I was very worried it was going to feel like we’re policing them nonstop, that everything was going to be negative corrections. ‘Pull your mask up, don’t stand so close.’ And instead, they’ve been really proactive asking for hand sanitizer if they touch their face,” Foss said. “It’s been incredible the personal responsibility they’ve taken.”

Since September, Saint Joseph’s says it has only had one case of COVID.

“And that case did not spread,” Bever said. “I think what we’ve done, following the Department of Health tool kit, would work in any school.”

Denise Juneau, superintendent of Seattle Public Schools (SPS), says the district has received many questions from parents about why Seattle is behind some other districts.

SPS said it currently has a memorandum of understanding on remote learning and changing that requires bargaining. Certain special needs students are expected to start March 1, but for pre-K through first-grade students, there will be a delay.

“Negotiations are underway, and I anticipate these students will have a later start date in March,” Juneau said in a video Q&A released by the district.

SPS also pointed out it is the largest district in the state and it has more students and staff to coordinate, as well as buildings to prepare and furniture to rearrange.

“The number of students and families who say they’re going to return to Seattle schools does somehow need to match up with the number of staff who are able to provide in-person services,” said Clover Codd, the district’s chief human resources officer.

From talking with kids all over Western Washington, it’s clear how much most students miss in-person school.

“It’s been an extremely long time. I want to get back to see my friends,” said third-grade student Parker Holmes earlier this week, who is in the Peninsula School District.

Saint Joseph’s says the changes have not been easy. They are still only doing half days in the classroom. But they say being able to pull it off has been hugely rewarding for everyone, especially the students.

“When we saw how happy they were when they came back, it made everything worth it,” Bever said.

SPS’s plans to return to the classroom include many of the same methods as Saint Joseph’s – including keeping kids in cohorts and serving lunch in classrooms.

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