Thousands of Seattle students return to school for second COVID year

Sep 1, 2021, 5:44 AM
school bus...
(MyNorthwest photo)
(MyNorthwest photo)

It’s the first day of school for thousands of Seattle students on Wednesday, most of which will arrive on campus in person.

It’s the second year of living with COVID-19 protocols for those 53,000 children — not to mention the thousands of other children across the state returning to the classroom this week.


Among the protocols are masks, which are mandatory for all students, educators, and staff indoors on school grounds. This is a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, schools are working to keep desks at least 3 feet apart, following another recommendation from the CDC.

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While it’s not a requirement ahead of the first day of school, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal requested a vaccine mandate for all educators in K-12 schools. Gov. Inslee granted that mandate, which means all educators risk losing their jobs if they are not vaccinated by Oct. 18. It includes those working in the state’s higher education system, as well as most child care and early learning providers.

In Seattle, students will notice changes to their day-to-day as schools work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Each school across the state is doing the same. In fact, Superintendent Reykdal has said if a school defies the requirements, it risks losing its state funding.

Ventilation in Seattle schools

Another important mitigation effort health officials emphasize is good ventilation, which isn’t always easy in aging schools.

“In some spaces, we are exchanging the air. In other spaces, we are cleaning the air borne particles,” Sarah Pritchett, assistant deputy superintendent at Seattle Public Schools, said in a town hall on Aug. 24. “So as we come back into school, we are maintaining air quality by managing air circulation and by using high performance air filters. MERV 13 filters have been added to HVAC systems that accept them and are being supplemented with free-standing HEPA filters in classrooms and other spaces.”

The district says it has also hired an external firm to assess each school building, offer air quality recommendations, and support spot checks throughout the school year.

Pritchett said exchanges will happen 4-6 times per hour in classrooms, including music classes and wood shop.

Not every Seattle student will be in the classroom in person, however. The school district launched a K-5 virtual academy, which it announced in the spring. The district said more than 300 families applied to participate remotely through the academy. For the families who could not get into the program, the district said it has reached out to offer information about the state’s virtual learning opportunities.

Lunch time process

Pritchett did not offer specific recommendations or requirements for lunches, but did say they’re asking schools to review their lunch plans and determine expanding distance between students.

“Keep in mind that each school layout is unique,” Pritchett said. “And so each has developed their own meal plan, including use of classrooms, outdoor covered areas and tents, gyms and common spaces.”

She said the district believes it can adhere to good mitigation practices by staggering seating, making sure students aren’t facing each other, distancing students, and maximizing air flow to meet DOH guidelines. This might also mean students are assigned seats or assigned groups to particular areas, which would help support contact tracing.

“At lunch time, students will be asked to wash their hands before and after eating, and also to limit their time when masks are off — only temporarily removing their masks when eating and drinking and putting their mask right back on,” Pritchett said.

Pritchett acknowledged this is going to be harder for younger students. She said it’ll be a learning opportunity to teach kids how to wear a mask and put it back on when they’re finished eating.

Bus transportation

Upon boarding the familiar yellow buses, students are to move to the furthest seat back. Only if each seat contains one student will they have to double up in the seat.

All bus windows will remain open to some extent to provide air flow, if it’s safe.


The district boasts achieving a 1:1 ratio of students to devices, which means students will be able to learn remotely if they have to quarantine. Educators will also post assignments and lessons in programs like Schoology and SeeSaw on a regular basis.

Seattle Public Schools is returning to standard grades — A-F — but not giving a grade lower than 50%, even for a missed assignment. Educators will also provide parents and students bi-weekly check-ins for students at risk of receiving failing grades or incompletes.

The district is also focused on third-grade reading, college readiness, and now seventh grade math. A group of educators and parents are tasked with finding and implementing new math materials for K-5 students by next fall.

Town Halls

Seattle Public Schools has been holding virtual town halls for parents and the community to address changes to this school year. Parents were encouraged to submit questions to Superintendent Brett Jones via YouTube and Facebook. Among the latest on the eve of the return to class (questions and answers are edited for clarity and brevity):

Q: What will my child do if he/she has symptoms?

A: Youngest learners will learn how to use the digital portals in the next few days. Older students in middle and high schools will have already accessed those. Devices will be distributed soon. Educators will post assignments and lessons that needs to be completed.

Q: Why are we adopting a new math curriculum?

A: The district is emphasizing the importance of lessons learned. Current instruction material is outdated. The new curriculum includes digital components that can do simulations and that are interactive, both attributes that are necessary for 21st century learning.

Q: Why did SPS decide to have the lowest grade be 50%?

A: The idea is not have grading practices be excessively punitive.

Q: How will laptops be used in the classroom?

A: It’ll look different across grades. Educators will issue laptops to all 53,000 kids across schools and introduce them to different learning portals, including Schoology and SeeSaw. Teachers can use those tools to incorporate into curriculums.

Q: Why is SPS not providing a hybrid option?

A: The state is requiring in-person learning on large scale. SPS is embracing that and is excited to welcome back students.

Q: Will my child be required to carry their device home and back to school each day?

A: It depends on the age of the student and what each school sets for expectations.

Q: If my child misses class due to illness, how do they make up their work?

A: Educators will teach children how to access digital portals, whether Schoology or SeeSaw, and work with students to navigate lessons and assignments. Each case will look a little different because the health concerns might be different. The goal is learning and access to high quality instruction.

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Thousands of Seattle students return to school for second COVID year