Amanda Ferguson’s first-grade son learned how to read through the help of countless Zoom classes and the virtual dedication of his Lakeland Elementary School teacher in the Federal Way district.
With recent announcements from the district about returning to in-person learning, Ferguson is concerned about losing this “thriving” connection once the district’s youngest learners return to classrooms early next month.
Federal Way Public Schools initially announced a return date of March 1, but on Thursday, Feb.11, the district pushed back the date. Now, students in pre-kindergarten through first grade will return to classrooms one week later Monday, March 8.
In addition to the youngest elementary school students, students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade receiving special education services who have opted for the hybrid model will also return to school March 1.
Hybrid instruction consists of either morning or afternoon in-person instruction sessions, and families will be assigned a specific time, the district stated in a Feb. 5 newsletter. This model allows for four days of half-day sessions and one day of remote instruction per week.
In-person learning consists of core instruction (language arts and math). Information about allotted time for recess or meals is not publicly available, according to the district. Students and teachers must remain socially distanced and wear masks at all times during the two-and-a-half-hour school day.
Classroom sanitization, health screenings and frequent handwashing will also be part of the daily routines.
Parent survey concerns
The district conducted a survey in recent weeks allowing families to select their preferred options of instruction moving forward, which included continuing with fully remote learning or shifting to a hybrid in-person structure.
Families who did not indicate a preference by completing the survey or contacting their school will remain in the fully remote instruction model, the district said.
Some parents in the district said they were unaware their survey answers would be a final decision.
“In no way was it stated the survey we were taking was permanent,” Ferguson, who expressed her concerns on social media, told the Federal Way Mirror newspaper. “Most concerning to me is the lack of transparency … Families should have been provided with all the information about the learning options so they could make an informed decision for themselves.”
Tiffany LaFontaine, a parent of two students in the Federal Way district who also serves on the Parent Advisory to the Superintendent group, said she was under the impression the survey was a “temperature check” to gauge how families felt about returning to classrooms.
“I’m a parent who reads every scrap of paper that comes from the district and it wasn’t clear,” LaFontaine said.
Both Ferguson and LaFontaine initially opted for their students to participate in hybrid learning, but each parent said they are now rethinking their decision.
The survey responses were necessary for the district to establish bus schedules, class rosters and determine staffing, said Kassie Swenson, chief of communications for Federal Way Public Schools. Though not included in the initial announcement, if parents selected the hybrid learning option and want to switch to remote learning, Swenson said families will be able to do so and the process for that change will be available this week.
“The district was clear in its communication to parents,” said Swenson, adding that the district asked parents to make a decision for the “remainder of the school year.” Schools also made additional phone calls to parents who did not complete the survey in order to confirm their choice.
In order to provide the two options of in-person and remote learning, the district notified parents that students “may be reassigned to a different teacher during this transition.”
While students will stay at the same school they’ve been attending all year, the district is “making every effort to keep teachers at the same school,” Swenson said. “We’re still reviewing the data for staff who’ve requested accommodations and how that matches up with parent requests for hybrid.”
School officials are continuing to coordinate with health providers for district staff to have access to COVID-19 vaccinations as soon as they are eligible under the state’s vaccination plan, the district said.
“The vaccine might not be available for school staff before our hybrid model begins on March 1, however, this does not stop us from moving forward with starting our hybrid model on schedule, in alignment with guidance from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction,” according to Superintendent Tammy Campbell.
Being vaccinated is “not a precondition for returning to in-person instruction,” said Swenson, noting guidance from Gov. Jay Inslee’s Office, Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the state Department of Health.
In negotiated agreements with the Federal Way Education Association union, staff can request remote work if they are at a higher risk of severe illness or death due to COVID-19; if the employee cannot wear the required personal protective equipment; live in a household with an individual that is at higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19; or must care for their child amid school closures and childcare difficulties. An employee who does not fit within the noted conditions may also request to remain remote, Swenson said.
Two separate Zoom information sessions will be held by the district for parents with students in pre-kindergarten through first grade Wednesday, Feb. 24, with meeting details to be announced in the coming days.