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

  1. “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.

    This upsets me a little bit. At Edmonds Heights K-12, I had new peers in nearly every new class I moved to. We had a somewhat high turnover of teachers, so I had plenty of new teachers as well. Want to know how badly the student body was affected? Not at all. It took maybe a day or two to adjust. Mr Murphy claims to be worried about children struggling to adapt to a new teacher and new peers, but could not care less about students adapting to suddenly not having school at all. If you think online school is working in any way, shape, or form, ask any K-12 student what they learned this year, and they will change your mind.

    Ask any college student too for that matter, but that is not the issue at hand.

    1. I am a math coach and about a month ago 2 of my students who go to private schools went back to in-person learning. I couldn’t believe the difference, in just a few days! They changed from being depressed and fatigued to being happy an energetic again. It was an amazing transformation. Both of these students still did Zoom at school, because their teachers weren’t ready to do in-person teaching yet. But for them, it was so supportive to be at school, with friends and in a social environment. I have noticed that their enthusiasm for learning has improved tremendously too. I so hope the public school students can be back with their communities soon too. Most teachers I know are getting vaccinated or already are.

  2. I have a hard time with this because my son goes to Holy Rosary & we have 275 students in the school. He’s in the 4th grade & we had to do a staggered start to the school year for each grade & we started in late September. When the student(s) are dropped off each day, each student & person in the the car (parent, younger/older brother & sister, grandparent, family member, etc.) is temperature checked. We also get temperature checked when we pick up our students from school. Lastly we have to fill out an Attestation form before school. If they answer YES to any of the questions they are required to stay home. He has 26 kids in his class & only 2 choose to remote from home. In 5 months ZERO students from the entire school, teachers or staff members has tested positive for COVID. When we came back from Christmas break the entire school did essentially a 2 week quarantine. The processes are in place for as much as they can be to prevent the students, teachers or staff from getting Covid. At some point we have to get students back to school & school busses back on the road.

  3. Reopening schools is a math problem. Most teachers will have no problem handling procedures and their classroom. The math problem is that all those good teachers will be converted to a Common Denominator. A minority of teachers will cause so many issues with masks, distancing, and fear that it will disrupt everyone else.

  4. We’re leaving out those parents who NEED their kids back in the classroom but don’t have the luxury or know how to attend district meetings. Maybe it’s a single mom who is working and trying to support her kids or maybe it’s an ESL parent. While I understand it would be nice for students to keep the same teacher, this is a time that calls for flexibility. Let us pursue equity for all- I’m pretty sure that’s a value in the ESD.

    1. As long as our School Boards continue to meet remotely, as a precaution, the same care and thoughtfulness needs to be given to our teachers, staff, bus drivers and students. Teachers and all staff should be immunized before students return to the classroom.

      1. On most hybrid plans, most parents will not be able to return to a viable working schedule anyway. Check out the surrounding districts’ published plans.

    2. I’m with Diana. And not just teachers, but all the other staff that work at these schools. Getting all those involved with in-person learning vaccinated has to be a part of the plan.

  5. If you follow the science then teachers, other than 60 year olds with health problems, could have safely gone back to work last May. Trouble is most of the science followers only follow science when it says what they want to hear.

    1. The word “science” has become meaningless in recent years. Genedally when people are r asking about “science” nowadays, they are talking about the political buzzword that allows them to feel morally superior to others, and not the academic field.

      A great example is the people telling you to wear double or triple masks because “the science” says so when in reality this concept is from an MSNBC report that misinterpreted a study suggesting triple LAYERED masks (fabric-interwoven-fabric) or putting a cloth mask on top of a medical mask.

      Wanna know something funny? Within DAYS of western scientists switching positions on using masks against a respritory disease, my social media feed was inundated with “mask shamers” when they themselves had probably just bought a mask the day before making their self righteous internet post.

      It is on the other side of the aisle too. Conservative commentators using one antarctic ice sheet gaining ice as PROOF climate change isn’t real, conveniently ignoring the other ice sheet on the opposite side of the word

    2. Inam a teacher over 60 and I take care of an elderly aunt. I do not currently qualify for either a family paid lead or a vaccine.
      I had to choose unpaid leave which means do not qualfy for unemployment. Many teachers and instructional paraeducators, who help the students who struggle the most, are now in the same situation. Where does that leave the kids who benefitted from the extra help?

      1. I personally am of the belief that anyone in your situation regardless of occupation should qualify for the vaccine

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