Even as they happily received COVID-19 vaccination shots at a Rainier Beach pop-up clinic Sunday, Seattle-area teachers and school staff expressed worry about how Gov. Jay Inslee’s new directive to reopen in-person schooling next month will be implemented safely.
“Personally, I’m kind of terrified,” said Corina Cook, who starts a long-term substitute stint Wednesday teaching seventh-grade history at Robert Eagle Staff Middle School in North Seattle. “I don’t know if it’s worth the stress on the staff and on the kids to try to rush this.”
Before Inslee’s announcement Friday, Seattle Public Schools had planned a phased return to in-person teaching, starting with kids most in need and then gradually adding more categories until finally all middle- and high-school students could go back.
“That has been tossed in the garbage,” Cook said. Now schools must prepare to offer some in-person instruction to all students by April 19.
That’s the new deadline for school principals and district administrators to work out the complex logistics of cleaning the buildings and scheduling classes, teachers and support services, as well as providing protective gear and daily health screening for everyone.
Teaching will have to be a hybrid of partly in-person and partly virtual — “roomies and zoomies,” as some teachers have dubbed it.
Seattle Public Schools is negotiating with the Seattle Education Association teachers’ union on how to achieve all that safely. It’s aiming for a maximum class size of 15 students, seated 6 feet apart and all wearing masks.
While Cook is now vaccinated, her household remains vulnerable, she said. Both her husband and her father-in-law, who lives with them, have respiratory conditions and aren’t yet vaccinated.
Speaking just after she got her vaccine shot, Cook said it will be difficult for the kids to return to their school buildings but not be allowed to socialize.
“To be constantly telling them they can’t be close to each other or share a desk to eat lunch together will be crushing,” she said. “I believe the administration and the union will do their best and come up with something to make this safe. But I’m concerned about the shortage of time to get it implemented.”
Cook was one of 1,000 newly-eligible teachers, school staff, and child-care providers given the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the Rainier Beach clinic.
Vaccinations were also being given to teachers and school staff across the region at many other sites Sunday, including a pop-up clinic at the UW Medicine Neighborhood Shoreline Clinic, where about 800 teachers, school staff and other eligible people were vaccinated with doses obtained from an Eastern Washington facility that couldn’t readily use them.
Brian Straub, a special-education teacher at Licton Springs K-8 School in Ballard who was at the Rainier Beach clinic, said he has no concerns for himself but is worried about the disruption ahead for his students.
He said many of the kids he supports — those who get easily upset or distracted and can be disruptive in a classroom — have actually been doing better with remote learning.
Debra Diederichs, an instructional assistant at Lowell Elementary on Capitol Hill, also works in a special program where many of the kids are behind in their education, in this case often because of medical conditions — a group already tapped by the administration of Seattle Public Schools to be one of the first brought back for in-person instruction.
However, she said many of the parents of the children she’ll work with have already opted to stay remote. “Only one of the third graders is coming back,” Diederichs said. “We’ll still be doing remote, but inside the school building, which makes no sense to me.”
She said she’s a team player and will do what is required of her, but she’s unclear how Lowell as a whole will cope.
“The school is old,” Diederichs said. “There’s not enough room and too many kids.”
Some educators already have experience with working in-person during the pandemic.
Kira Crowely, a preschool teacher at Launch Learning, located between Capitol Hill and Madison Valley, has been working with 3-to-5-year-olds in-person since September.
Although there are daily temperature checks and all the teachers wear masks, “it hasn’t felt safe,” Crowely said.
“Not all the parents wear masks. Not all the parents are social distancing,” she said.
Crowely was working at a day care in New York City when the pandemic started a year ago. When the day care closed, she lost her job and her apartment. And she contracted COVID-19, which floored her for days.
She recovered fully and moved to Washington state. Crowely said she would prefer to work at home, but she doesn’t have that option because she needs the income.
Rachel Skokan, a groundskeeper at the private Bush School in Madison Valley, said Sunday she felt “very blessed” to have received the vaccination.
The Bush School also has been in-person since September.
“We have room. We can spread out,” Skokan said. “We have tents for classes and eating meals outside.”
At a news conference at the Rainier Beach vaccination site Sunday, James Bush, chief of Equity, Partnerships, and Engagement at Seattle Public Schools, did not have details on how the school district will handle Inslee’s directive, which will be published in full during the coming week.
“We’ll need to analyze the impacts of that proclamation,” said Bush, adding that the district will continue to work with the teachers’ union to find a way forward.
Thea White works with teenage students who are parents or who are pregnant at the Atlantic Street Center in Rainier Valley. She helps provide for their needs beyond school, including information on prenatal care and assistance with food and rental housing.
White has been working with these students remotely and says the virtual experience has gone relatively well.
Asked how she feels about the prospect of returning to the building, she said “I’m torn.”
“Of course I’m very excited to see people and be in person,” she said. “But I’m also not in a rush.”
“I know people are antsy,” White said. “But we need to slow down. If we bring people in, I hope it’s a really thought-out plan.”