Remote learning is still gnawing.

All right, here's something everyone—parents, students, teachers, staff—can agree on. "A lot has happened in the last week and a half," Seattle Public Schools board member Liza Rankin said during Wednesday's meeting.

Let's recap. On Monday, January 3, SPS canceled classes so that students and staff could get rapid tested (after waiting in very not-rapid lines) for Covid-19. The next day brought some good news: Only about 4 percent of those students and staff tested positive, well below what some expected amid the omicron surge. But by the end of week, Washington state schools superintendent Chris Reykdal was warning that local school districts might need to close temporarily amid staffing shortages. On Monday, Franklin High and Kimball Elementary shut down for the day. And in the days since, several others in the city have switched to remote learning or closed their doors.

People, as you may know, have opinions about this. "I feel like I’m getting whiplash on social media," board member Leslie Harris said during the meeting. "Half the world wants in-person schooling, and the other half wants to be online." 

SPS has been clear about what it wants. "Our objective is to continue to learn in person safely," interim superintendent Brent Jones said, noting it's the "best" instruction they can offer. "No public health guidance is telling us to go remote."

But the district has, to many parents' frustration, not been proactive as it tries to juggle staff shortages and Covid outbreaks amid the omicron wave; cancellations and remote work sometimes arrive on extremely short notice. "If we say it is possible that we might have to close schools for a week, and we have a robust plan of what’s going to happen in that week, not every parent is going to be happy, but every parent can be prepared," board member Michelle Sarju said.

SPS has now released the data it considers for going remote, including when an elementary school's absence rate approaches 50 percent, or when 10 percent of students and staff at a school test positive for Covid. If a quarter of the district's 106 schools are fully remote, SPS will consider reinstating remote learning for all of them.

When asked if other circumstances, such as the student sickout planned for today, could alter the standard for going virtual, SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson said via email that it would adhere to its Covid protocols as outlined.

Many students are fed up. Rena Mateja Walker Burr of Cleveland High had this to say to the board: "When students were anticipating the return to schools, we were promised we would be safe. We were promised our mental health would be prioritized. We were promised that we would return to a healthy environment. We were promised that BIPOC students would have a space where we would be accepted and be able to thrive without any fear of harm, and we were promised that we would stay alive. All these promises have been broken because students do not feel safe, healthy, nor comfortable in SPS."

While severe cases of Covid have been rare in children, and deaths nearly nonexistent in King County, concerns about the effects of long Covid have lingered as cases have climbed of late. One request from students in the interim? More funding for mental health resources, which are undoubtedly a pressing need for children during the pandemic.

Uti Hawkins of Seattle Education Association, which represents SPS teachers, supported those student concerns during the meeting: "What our students are feeling is a direct result of how our system is failing."

SPS is hardly the only major district facing an uproar. No one seems certain about whether remote or in-person learning is the best short-term course. In Portland, teachers considered a sickout to avoid classroom instruction. In Chicago, students were set to protest the city's decision to return to in-person learning. In Atlanta, the district pulled an about-face to virtual classes.

Jones tried to be magnanimous during his opening remarks, acknowledging the burden placed on parents by schedule changes while stressing the dedication of teachers and staff. "Our school teams have done heroic tasks in order to keep our buildings open." He attempted to end on a positive note. "I am committing on record today," he said, "that our seniors will have a prom."

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