Children sit in a classroom and listen to a story being read aloud by a man in a suit wearing a mask.
(Credit: Seattle Public Schools)

The letter District Leaders should send to follow earlier garbage.

Dear Seattle Schools families,

As Covid numbers have spiked among kids and staff in Seattle Public Schools, we here at the District have repeatedly sent out confusing and oblivious emails. They were so poorly put together, you needed to wade through a bunch of caveats and self congratulations before getting to information you really wanted. Then we made useful information indecipherable. 

Sorry.

The information we sent out looked something like this:

Some of the factors we are closely monitoring and the data points at which consideration of a shift to remote learning becomes viable include:

- Elementary student absence rate is approaching 50% consider remote instruction for up to 10 calendar days
- K-5 and K-8 schools have 50% of their classrooms in remote, monitor for 2 to 3 days then consider full school remote
- 10% of core group of students and staff COVID positive, consider remote instruction for up to 10 calendar days.
- An absentee rate of 40% of students in a secondary school, consider remote instruction for up to 10 calendar days
- 10% of secondary students are COVID positive across multiple classrooms, consider remote instruction for up to 10 calendar days
- 25% of all SPS schools are 100% remote, consider taking district remote
- Percent and mix of unfilled positions in a school creates unmanageable operational and/or safety risks.
- 50% to 100% school leader/Covid Site Supervisor absence due to confirmed COVID case consider remote instruction

Sorry to have made that so very confusing. 

Reflecting upon the District Leadership’s many compounding failures, two things occurred to us. First, we must recognize that 2021-2022 is already a disrupted and incomplete year. Lack of bus drivers has put students at school late and shortage of substitutes has pushed teachers to burnout. Lack of staff closed individual schools and closed the entire District for at least one day. On top of pandemic related issues, we have seen an increase in threats made over social media, prompting students to stay out of school due in justifiable concern for their safety. Together those are, by definition, a disrupted year.

Second, this is the fourth incomplete year in a row. Before the long remote of last year and the initial Covid closures in 2020, we had a February 2019 snowstorm that kept students out of class for most of the month. That means graduating seniors have never spent a full, uninterrupted year in their high school classrooms. Lower grades have to look back to a different school to recall being in-person for February and March. Only fourth and fifth graders can remember a full year at their school. 

Sorry about that too. While District Leadership can’t control the weather or a global pandemic, we can control our reaction to it. And we haven’t done a very good job. We have not leveled up to meet the spectacular efforts that our teachers, staff, and school administrations have made to keep your kids engaged and your communities whole. After four years of this, you should expect better from District Leadership. We are sorry that we have not met the most minimum expectations. 

So let’s take a moment to define what some expectations are going forward. 

Unilateral disarmament.

2022 is a contract year for the Seattle Education Association (SEA). Given the last four years of disruption, we cannot go into next year with any question of start dates or labor uncertainty. The District must step to the table with an offer that reflects the massive emotional work that teachers have performed for three years, at great personal risk. Raises will be generous. Job security more so. The demonstrably ridiculous and punitive reporting requirements we’ve put on teacher in-service time will be removed. And we’ll lower class sizes and case loads for school nurses, counselors, and resource staff.

Honestly, we should have put a freeze on moving teachers and cutting staff budgets back in May of 2020 when it became apparent that this pandemic was going to go on for a while. Going into each of the last two years expecting to measure classroom populations – particularly incoming kindergarteners – with the same rules as the past was a tremendous mistake. Sorry about that. And the District Leadership specifically apologizes to teachers who were left to dangle, threatened with budget cuts due to erroneous head counts.

Students don’t attend Seattle Schools in order to connect to the School District. They attend in order to connect and learn from skilled and caring teachers and staff. Sometimes we forget that here in the detached fortress of the John Stanford Center. At best, the District Leadership steps on the good work schools are doing. At worst, we’re a barrier to learning. That’s not going to happen this summer. SEA must show the way like it did when winning racial equity committees, counselor positions, and class size reductions during earlier contract negotiations. Students elsewhere are developing amazing proposals to meet current education challenges. The District Leadership will be ready to listen and adopt these proposals.

Absolute candor.

Too much of the District’s communications efforts go into making everything sound pleasant or boosting feel good blurbs. We use far too many acronyms and talk vaguely in terms of standards. What everyone really wants to know: Is my school going to be open? Is my kid learning? Here are your answers:

Schools are going to stay open as much as possible. This is not a test of children’s immunity, it is a reflection of the reality that Seattle is highly vaccinated and we know how to lower transmission among kids and staff. Most elementaries have been doing great. Middle schools and high schools, not so much.

However, we’re facing exactly the same problems as every family and business in America. We can’t find test kits or PPE. We can’t hire enough staff fast enough for the wages we’re paying and the schedules we expect them to keep. So we have to consider what it takes to close in-person learning and go remote.

The thresholds for a school going remote are 10% positivity rate or 25% absence among either students or staff. The things that will trigger the District going completely remote are 25% of schools going remote or another order from the Governor. There are some special considerations if we get a huge surge in principals and supervisors testing positive or a school is particularly short-staffed to begin with. 

Again, this is a massive pain for anyone making plans for graduation or child care, and staff depending on a date certain to finish the year. So we recognize the end of school is officially June 17 regardless of the hours spent in the classroom. District Leadership is petitioning the State to catch up. We all know that kids aren’t going to get any learning done after mid-June in a year like this, even if we tack on extra days. (And those days will be on the other side of the three-day Juneteenth weekend, which just isn’t going to work.)

As for whether your kid is learning, the answer is that they’re not learning what you want them to. Your child is surviving a global pandemic. This once in a century trauma is piled on the psychic damage of a decade of nascent fascism and the existential threat of a planet on fire. Math worksheets aren’t going to cut it. But Social Emotional Learning, or SEL, will help. The acronym sucks, but it’s essentially teaching the kids to understand what’s going on in their bodies and how it affects their brains and reactions. SEL lessons are built towards being decent, aware humans in a community. It’s something we desperately need today, instead of the stunted, isolated, angry adults many of us are. Absolute candor: with SEL, your kid is going to do better than you are.

In the spirit of absolute candor:

We want to make two further points. First, fair does not mean even. Seattle is a racially segregated city, and our schools reflect that division. The District cannot give exactly even attention to every school, and it shouldn’t. Our schools are making up the gap in wealth, employment, child care, community connection, and even food that exists between the wealthiest schools and the poorest. If your school has a PTA Parent Facebook group where you can complain that the tens of thousands of dollars you fundraised last year needs to go to a tutor, you must understand how far you’re starting above “even.” The District will hand attention and resources to schools in the fairest way possible. It will not be even.

Second, this is a reminder that you need to vote YES on School Levies in February. You’re tired of elections after a mayor’s race and a separate recall election? So are we. It is lunacy to have the future of education in this state dependent on the whims of property values and whomever sends their ballot in during an off-cycle, off-season, off-year election. Tell the legislature to pass an income tax and other progressive revenues. Tap into some of that wealth of your feudal lords over in Medina, and we’ll talk about putting kids on a path to success.

Schools sit at the threshold between government and service. We, as District Leadership, are failing at both. We are not responsive to the voters that put the school board in place or the constituents of Seattle that vote for levies. At the same time, we’ve not supported our teachers and staff who are the front line of service. They’re performing the most under-appreciated, under-paid jobs in the world. We need to live up to their example by doing some Social Emotional Learning of our own.

Your obedient servants,

The SPS District Leadership.

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Article Author

Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.