Educators and parents of Federal Way Public Schools are voicing concerns over potential plans for returning to school in the fall.
Last week, FWPS Superintendent Dr. Tammy Campbell announced a possible hybrid model of instruction starting in September, with two days of in-person learning and three days of remote learning, depending on the state’s guidelines.
Yet, returning to school amid a global pandemic has many people worried about the risks for both students and staff members with in-person learning options on the table.
“Our first and foremost priority as FWEA is safety and health,” said Federal Way Education Association President Shannon McCann.
The FWEA union represents about 1,700 staff members in the Federal Way Public Schools system of more than 23,000 students. According to McCann, members of the union do not feel safe returning to in-person instruction in the fall.
Case numbers and death tolls due to the COVID-19 pandemic continue to surge, which prompted Gov. Jay Inslee on July 14 to halt any counties in the state from moving forward in his four-tiered reopening plan until at least July 28.
Washington State Department of Health also published a report on July 15, which said school reopenings with no countermeasures may lead to double the amount of COVID-19 cases in the first three months. However, use of preventative measures such as masks, physical distancing and more could be effective in reducing disease transmission.
Earlier this week, Los Angeles and San Diego school districts in California have opted to go online-only at the start of the school year, and more districts around the nation are weighing the options.
FWPS is taking is following the ever-changing guidelines provided by the Washington State Department of Health (DOH), Public Health – Seattle & King County and the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said FWPS Chief of Communications Kassie Swenson.
“We deeply care about the safety of our students, staff and families as we approach reopening school in the fall,” Swenson said. “We share the concerns of our teachers and families and the challenge that face-to-face instruction may present for our students and staff.”
In Federal Way, there is still difficulty accessing COVID-19 testing, FWEA President McCann said, adding that FWEA has heard reports of long waiting lines, a four-day lag time for test results and limited availability of contact tracing.
“When we think of a teacher or students who have been exposed and waiting four days for results, there are systemic implications,” McCann said.
The teachers union declared their acceptable death rate is zero, and that preserving life is their number one priority at this time.
“We cannot lose any teachers, we cannot lose any students, we cannot lose any students’ family members,” McCann said. “That is insurmountable trauma.”
The COVID-19 virus is also disproportionately affecting communities of color, according to research by King County Public Health, especially Pacific Islander and Black communities.
Federal Way Public Schools has been named the most diverse school district in Washington state, and the fifth most diverse school district in the nation — factors that cannot be ignored when deciding back to school plans, McCann said.
“We cannot forget that this virus has ravaged communities of color who are already dealing with systemic racism and, potentially, poverty,” she said.
The superintendent’s newsletter noted a survey was conducted in June to gauge input from the staff and families, but McCann said this survey is only representative of one point in time.
Union members were “briefly” talked to about the survey before it came out, and members had their own extensive conversations in May and June. On social media, some people remarked the survey did not offer an option for fully distanced learning.
While everyone understands this is a difficult situation for both the school district and the state, the survey was conducted before the recent rise in COVID-19 numbers.
Heightening the pressure, there have also been recent threats from President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to withhold funding from schools that don’t reopen in the fall, according to The Seattle Times.
“We still see rates of COVID-19 that are comparable to when we closed schools back in March,” McCann said.
On June 11, OSPI released guidance for reopening schools in the fall, which urged districts across the state to provide “students with as much face-to-face time with their educators and peers in schools as possible, consistent with health and safety needs.”
A 100% fully remote instruction was not an option for reopening in the fall unless there was a stay at home order, Swenson said, which is why the survey did not offer the option.
In the survey, they could indicate which hybrid model they preferred that allows for in-person instruction while following the 6 feet social distancing measures according to OSPI’s guidelines and the district “made it clear that this was if our region’s response to COVID-19 allowed us to safely provide face-to-face instruction in the fall.”
Heated discussions also took place on social media, where parents and community members spoke about the possible plans.
One Facebook user Sara Byers wrote, “…my children and friends are not sacrifical lambs.” Another, Ginni White Steckler wrote, “I think this is just plain silly. What’s the point in even going in for 2 days a week? No matter how ‘safe’ they’re being, all’s it’s going to take is for ONE teacher, or ONE student to get diagnosed before the ‘dominos’ start falling. Just not worth it!”
Lisa Henry wrote: “I’m not sure I like any solution, and would prefer my kids not be exposed to anything, but I also can’t quit my full time job to ensure they do their work either. Teachers are not babysitters, but full time in classroom school is what enables most families work 2 full time working parents, and single parents to be able to work. We wouldn’t be working if we didn’t need to, and now we’re also needed at home. It doesn’t go both ways. When school closed in March, so did my kids’ education. I’m terrified of what my kids won’t be able to learn in this situation, and at least one is very frustrated by it because she’s too young for all the self learning that is now expected. Like it or not, we can work and teach our kids, but we can’t do both.”
Some people commented that they would be pulling their kids out of school if in-person plans were finalized. Others said more time in school is better for working parents.
Questions have been raised about topics such as how families will handle childcare, supporting families in remote learning who speak different languages, the shortage in laptops and WiFi access for students, and a national shortage of PPE — a tight supply even before the strain of approximately 52 million students returning to schools around the nation.
It is also important for the community to know FWPS does not have a school nurse in every building, McCann said. FWPS employs 23 nurses for the district’s 38 schools, and many of the nurses cover multiple sites, meaning one nurse could be responsible for up to 2,000 students.
“And that’s before a pandemic,” she said. “In a pandemic, it would be a natural assumption that a nurse in every building would be crucial — that’s not a reality.”
This pandemic exacerbates inequalities that have always existed, McCann said, because although there should be plans in place to keep school communities safe, that’s not the case.
The union wants clear guarantees of health safety for Federal Way’s students, educators and community, McCann said. Additional solutions to the unforeseen situation could include an investment into professional development for teachers for robust and equitable remote learning.
“Schools are the pillar of the community and that means if our community of kids get sick, we take that responsibility very seriously,” she said. “FWEA is absolutely committed to an equitable response for the community and our members who serve the community.”
The district said the new July 15 report makes face-to-face instruction in the fall look less likely, however they will continue to craft their response in coordination with the state’s health and education departments.
Since May 28, a 100-member committee comprised of teachers, support staff, school administrators have met seven times to provide valuable input towards reopening in the fall, Swenson said.
This input along with feedback from student focus groups and union partners, survey data, and following OSPI, Department of Health, and state guidance are used to inform a recommendation that will be acted upon by the superintendent.
Ultimately, Federal Way’s reopening plans are to be reviewed and voted on by the school board at the Aug. 11 virtual meeting. For more information, visit fwps.org.