School in the Time of Covid: Dahlia Bazzaz from the Seattle Times
Release Date: 05/04/2021
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This week Crystal is joined by Seattle Times education reporter, Dahlia Bazzaz. The 2020-2021 school year has been defined by how schools respond to the Covid-19 pandemic, and Crystal and Dahlia discuss how schools are managing reopening, racial disparities in opting for in-person schooling, a significant increase recently passed in the legislature to support early learning, and what we may see coming in the 2021-2022 school year.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
“Around Seattle, the oldest students return to school buildings for the first time in more than a year” by Dahlia Bazzaz: https://www.seattletimes.com/education-lab/around-seattle-the-oldest-students-return-to-school-buildings-for-the-first-time-in-more-than-a-year/
“With many WA students lacking internet, remote learning falls short” by Claudia Rowe: https://crosscut.com/opinion/2021/02/many-wa-students-lacking-internet-remote-learning-falls-short
“Politics, race were key factors when Washington schools reopened for in-person learning during the pandemic” by Hannah Furfaro, Manuel Villa, and Dahlia Bazzaz: https://www.seattletimes.com/education-lab/politics-race-determined-which-students-made-it-back-to-school-buildings-during-the-pandemic/
“Here’s what Seattle Schools' first reopening phase could look like” by Anne Dornfeld: https://www.kuow.org/stories/here-s-what-seattle-schools-first-big-reopening-stage-could-look-like
“Washington students won’t take standardized tests this school year” by Dahlia Bazzaz: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/education/standardized-tests-for-washington-state-students-delayed-until-fall-2021/
“Child care and early learning advocates in Washington state celebrate legislative wins” by Dahlia Bazzaz and Elise Takahama: https://www.seattletimes.com/education-lab/child-care-and-early-learning-advocates-in-washington-state-celebrate-legislative-wins/
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk to political hacks and policy wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today, we are thrilled to have with us Dahlia Bazzaz, a reporter with the Seattle Times on education and everything related to it. Has done excellent reporting over the past few years, certainly over the pandemic, just on education, teaching, reopening, you name it. She has covered it in the arena of education. So thank you so much for joining us.
Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:01:17] Thank you so much for having me. Glad to be back.
Crystal Fincher: [00:01:20] Yeah, absolutely. And so I just wanted to start off and just, I guess, start off by asking how is reopening going? So my understanding is now there is an in-person schooling option for every school kid in the state. How is that going so far?
Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:01:39] Well, I think for especially school districts in the Puget Sound region, this is all pretty new. So a lot of in-person learning in Western Washington - and in the Seattle area, started earlier this month. April 5th, for elementary school students to be back in-person, that was the governor's deadline, and then April 19th for high school and middle school students.
And so everyone is getting adjusted to what has been, for a lot of school districts, the hybrid learning schedule. And so that means a few days on in-school, few days off. Or in Seattle Public Schools case, for elementary schoolers, having half the day in-person and half the day at home. But we're really just seeing a lot of different variations. So some students are still a 100% remote, so not much has changed for them. And teachers are having to plan for so many different scenarios right now, for where students are at, and what time they're coming in, and which group of students they're going to be in. So a lot of schools have divided kids into one of two groups to make sure that there's distancing and not as many kids in the classroom. And so there's just a general feeling of adjustment right now, and also some excitement at being back in classrooms and meeting each other face to face.
Crystal Fincher: [00:03:12] Well, and there definitely is that excitement. I mean, certainly, there are a lot of parents and people concerned about wanting to reopen only when safe and as safe as possible. At the same time, it has been rough having kids at home, having to guide their schooling to a degree that families haven't really had to do before. So what are you hearing in terms of just relief, and from parents and kids on what being back in school is feeling like for them?
Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:03:50] I think for a lot of people initially, it just felt very strange to see people back in school buildings. I think a lot of kids that I've spoken to have been just - it brings a new concreteness to school that they didn't have before. And there are teachers that they've never met before, in some cases. Schools that they haven't actually been inside because they're freshmen in high school or they've just transferred into the school district. So there's that back-to-school feeling, but in the spring. And then for teachers, I think it's been really valuable to connect with students again. We've had, with online learning, a lot of students leaving their cameras off and not a ton of face-to-face contact. So there's some sort of assurance in seeing students in-person.
And there's also the flip side of that. There's also students who are immunocompromised, families that are immunocompromised, teachers that are immunocompromised - who for this time, it feels odd because some are still staying at home. And so there's this whole event going on that they're not participating in.
Crystal Fincher: [00:05:21] Now, we certainly heard a lot from teachers, as they were discussing plans to reopen schools and to reintegrate students back into the classroom, about wanting to make sure that opening was happening in an orderly, and safe, and healthy way. What were their requests and are those being met?
Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:05:48] Well, I think it's hard to say generally whether their requests are being met, because it's really dependent on the school district and sometimes even at the school level. But in general, what we saw in these contracts that were being negotiated or MOUs, Memorandums Of Understanding, between school districts and teachers' union is just reinforcing some of the safety guidelines from the Department of Health, from the Department of Labor and Industries in Washington State. In some cases, teachers' unions were requesting that copies of HVAC reports were provided for classrooms upon request - that was a stipulation in Seattle's contract. For some places, it was placing tighter restrictions on how many students could be inside a room at one time. And some are really dealing more specifically with a supply of PPE and making sure that districts have enough to last for the next few months. And so it's really just across the board.
And then also, teachers were fighting for flexible leave and accommodations for members of unions that had some sort of health issue, who are not able to get vaccinations because of some allergy to what was in the vaccine, or just various other accommodations for their schedules. That was also another big theme. And I've heard of, in some cases - I think we all have - when teachers have raised issues with the amount of PPE provided in classrooms, they've also raised issues with applying and being successful in getting a work accommodation to work from home if they have some sort of health issue. And so we hear events like that happening pretty often, and sometimes there are contract issues and they come up in bargaining, and other times we hear about it online or through tips.
Crystal Fincher: [00:08:16] You have reported a lot about challenges that families have faced throughout the pandemic and in schooling during that time. And certainly, the inequities of the availability of high quality broadband and just the ability to connect reliably to the school in a remote setting has been a challenge. Students with larger families, or who may not have parents who can stay home and guide their education, is certainly a reality for a lot of kids. And there have been kids who have fallen behind, in some cases far behind, because this model of teaching and schooling just is not compatible with what they have going on at home. How are they faring? And are they seeing more students return than they saw engaged in online learning? How is this divide manifesting and appearing right now?
Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:09:25] It's manifesting in a couple of different ways. I mean, I think we should start out first by acknowledging that many of the students who are back in classrooms right now are students of a higher income bracket. Many families that are opting in, just disproportionately, opting in for in-person learning are white. And so that's been another concern raised in recent weeks, as the governor's order has taken effect, is who exactly is opting in for in-person learning.
And so I mean, for some families of color, it's been a difficult choice to decide whether or not to send their kids back in-person for a couple of reasons. For one, there are concerns about, just in general, health concerns - families of color, Black and Brown families, have been hit disproportionately harder by the virus. So there's a lot more caution in that respect. And then there's also just the logistical issues with hybrid schedules. So I've heard from quite a few people that, for example, in Seattle Public Schools and at the high school level, students are making the transition into their in-person learning in the middle of the day. And a lot of kids have taken up jobs during the pandemic, and so it's not compatible in the middle of the day with their schedules to come in. Or there's the transportation issue, so and Seattle Public Schools isn't providing yellow school bus transportation for a lot of kids that used to be eligible for it. So then getting to school really depends on whether or not you have a ride. And if your parent can't take you or stop in the middle of the workday to take you, or you don't have access to a car or a ride share, then your choice is to stay at home. So there are some families that want to participate or would have been interested in in-person learning who cannot access it right now.
Crystal Fincher: [00:11:42] Well, and that just seems like such a failure to not even have an accommodation that allows you to get to school, to both face the realities of your home and family life and to participate in school. What does that say about the schooling system that we have set up if it doesn't work within the lives of so many?
Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:12:06] I think that this pandemic has shown how things can compound on each other. There are a lot of existing issues with access, and we're just seeing a lot of it come to bear out right now. I think Seattle Public Schools had had an issue with transportation prior to this, where they contract with this school bus carrier called First Students and they have struggled, as with the entire school bus industry, with recruiting drivers. And there hadn't been planning ahead of time to accommodate this influx of students at this rate, prior to the governor's proclamation. So the school bus company had laid off some of its drivers because of the lack of demand. So it all collapsed in this moment where the transportation was needed and it just wasn't available. So it's a lot of different factors.
Crystal Fincher: [00:13:21] So does the district still provide Metro bus passes?
Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:13:27] Yes, and I think ORCA cards are going to be offered. For the first week, with middle and high schoolers in Seattle Public Schools, Metro drivers were instructed not to collect fares because I don't think everyone had gotten their cards yet. But for even pre-pandemic, middle and high schoolers were given ORCA cards and they weren't given yellow school bus transportation. But there was some warning coming from Metro a couple of weeks ago that there could be some delays expected on these routes because of the influx of new student riders getting to class.
Crystal Fincher: [00:14:12] Frustrating situation. What is the situation like with testing? We've heard that some tests have been suspended, others have been pushing to continue within districts in some places. Are we seeing a wholesale suspension of, I guess, what we would consider now high-stakes testing, standardized testing?
Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:14:38] Well, a lot of what happens with standardized testing really depends on what the Feds say. So we had standardized testing delayed in Washington State until fall. And so the Department of Education last year, the federal Department of Education last year, waived the need for standardized tests. And so nobody, or very few states, actually administered them, including Washington. And this year, the state had applied for this waiver, with the Department of Education, to maybe test a representative sample of students rather than doing the whole thing in the spring. And so it would have been about 50,000 students testing instead of 750,000. So that request did not seem like it was going to be successful, so they instead decided to delay and do the test in the fall, so they wouldn't interrupt some of the reopening plans.
But I mean, to answer your question about phasing out high-stakes standardized testing, I think this current State superintendent has worked to de-emphasize standardized testing and really de-link them from different things, such as graduation rates. That's been something that, or graduation standards. And that's been something that he's worked on in the legislative sessions. But, ultimately, federal law does require states to send and administer a form of standardized tests to students every single year, so that type of change would have to come at the federal level. On the other hand, in Washington State, there is a pretty prevalent opt-out movement and parents can opt their kids out of tests.
Crystal Fincher: [00:16:40] Thanks for that. I'm also wondering - we just wrapped up the Washington State legislative session here this past weekend. Was there any significant legislation passed that impacts education and kids in school?
Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:17:00] Yes actually, we just published something on this. So we did a little roundup, but there were a few big things that happened this legislative session. I think the relief aid from the federal coronavirus relief package, stimulus package, the third one, had a pretty big role to play this legislative session. So there was a lot of money being pushed out to school districts now to help them address any academic loss among students that have been learning remotely or that took place during closures last spring. And there's also some money for - the school districts can use that money for - PPE and other emergency measures.
And I would say also though, this is not directly related to K-12, but one of the biggest changes that we saw with the capital gains tax is this long-term commitment to fund the expansion of childcare, and childcare sector and early learning. So there was this Fair Start Act that passed this legislative session, and that really puts a lot of teeth into expanding access to early childhood learning and childcare, which became a huge issue during the pandemic. We saw a lot of childcare facilities close because of health guidelines, because they couldn't necessarily keep their facilities open. And that was putting an enormous strain on the workforce. And so this new piece of legislation basically commits the state to expanding income eligibility for some of the tuition programs that help families pay for early preschool programs and for childcare. And it also essentially requires the state to double the number of slots that it funds for preschool. There's a state funded preschool program, it's like the state equivalent to the Head Start program from the federal government, it's a preschool program. And so it'll be about 14,000 new seats by 2026. And that's a pretty big increase and it's doubling the number of slots. So we saw probably the biggest changes around how much investment is going into childcare and early learning.
Crystal Fincher: [00:19:43] Which is absolutely huge. I mean, I'm sure you've covered it. And actually, I just saw a piece where you did cover it, where early childhood education makes a huge difference in how successful kids are in elementary school and beyond. So investments there are huge and really do even more to set kids on the right path and have that be a sustainable path and a path that they're more likely to stay on. And just the burden of childcare for families overall has been oppressive, really - just the cost of childcare, how unavailable it has been. So relief in that area is very welcome. And just overall, we talk a lot about what happens within the walls of the school, but a lot of the support systems surrounding that are just as important. And so certainly on my end, those were welcome investments to see coming out of the legislative session. I guess, moving forward, what do you see as the biggest changes or in this new normal that we're all going to be establishing, what are kids and families looking ahead to throughout this year and into next year?
Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:21:16] That's a big question. I mean, I think, for me as an education reporter, I'm looking to see what ends up happening in the fall. There's been some new standards around how much social distancing should be in place. CDC released these new distancing guidelines at the elementary school level that say that three foot of space is, or three feet of distance between people, is safe in a school setting. But then we also have new variants of the virus appearing pretty often. And so a lot of it is just anticipating how schools will react to that, whether or not that's going to change the modes of instruction and have an effect on how things are going.
So I think what's happening in Eastern and Central parts of Washington, I'm looking at what's some of the debates there and seeing how that might affect the West side of the state later on. So in the Eastern, Central parts of Washington, like in Yakima and some of the surrounding districts, some of the things that have come up is whether to go back to school full-time in-person. So cycling out of hybrid setting, and some places have decided to do that pretty quickly, and others have held back and are still doing hybrid schooling. So I'll be looking at that.
And also, I think that remote learning is going to be something that is offered, or something that is asked for, for quite some time. So how are schools going to adapt to those two different types of educational models going forward? And I'm very interested to see whether some of the demographic patterns we've seen, where it's mostly white and middle to upper income families opting in to in-person learning. I'm really interested to see if that holds up into the fall. And there're, of course, going to be a whole bunch of questions as there already are around equity and how educational access is offered.
Crystal Fincher: [00:23:39] And you brought up a really interesting thought, just as we continue to move forward and we make good progress against, I guess, the original virus, the OG, and now we've got all these variants popping up and flourishing because people can't act right, basically, they are flourishing. What seems to be a point of contention still is how much schools do or do not contribute to the spread of the virus. And certainly it was thought that with the original virus that kids spread it at a much lower rate than adults. And there seem to be some indication that that might not necessarily be the case with some of the variants. How is, I guess, the tracking and reporting of the spread of the virus happening within school districts within Washington? Are we seeing this crop up and spread within classes or schools? How is that going?
Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:24:52] Yeah, so every week or so, the State Department of Health collects information from school districts on outbreaks, which is - there's a whole bunch of ways to define this, but the main one is basically that it's two or more cases in the same class or same school. There's a bunch of asterisks with that definition. But so school districts are mandated to do contact tracing - and to have all these different checks of temperature and health clearance and forms - when students come in and the same goes for adults that enter the building. So there is an effort to track that in Washington State, and a bunch of school districts have also had dashboards up on their website with the number of cases that they've had. In some places, you can look by school. Seattle Public Schools has a dashboard where you can look by region - you can't see it by individual school, but you can see it by region.
And so those are some of the ways that it's being tracked here. One of the things that we've really wanted to see, or that we've asked for from State Department of Health, is really just a breakdown of cases and then having - the way that the Department of Health currently displays its data for cases is just kind of an overall, but we would love to see some more delineation around schools and districts. And the same way that you can see the total number of cases in a county, it'd be interesting to see that by school district, just in a very accessible way on the state website. And we've seen other states take those steps as well. So there is some data being collected, it's not necessarily detailed by variant of the virus, but there is some information about that.
Crystal Fincher: [00:27:06] So does it seem as if reopening is happening safely, does it look like clusters continue to pop up in schools? What does the current situation look like?
Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:27:16] I mean, we see, I think I would venture to say a lot of school districts that have opened have seen cases. We haven't really received news of a major outbreak in a school district - one that has infected hundreds of people. There were some clusters that we saw happening in places that opened early, such as Spokane, in Spokane County. So we did see some instances like that, but from what we've learned from the Department of Health, there haven't been any major outbreak situations that have been linked to schools. That's not to say that it doesn't happen. And there's also, when these cases are investigated inside schools, there's always a question of whether or not the case originated inside of the school or whether or not it was maybe somebody who had it from a different place and came inside the school. And they try to investigate to see if it is truly sourced in the school. But there's always a question of where it comes from.
And so I'm not a health expert by any means. So I think the Department of Health expert would be probably better poised to answer this question, but we haven't personally seen any major outbreak because of schools. But we have read some research, there's some research that says that schools are pretty good at mitigating the risk of the virus, if they have the proper safety precautions in place. But then there are also - we had seen some recent research that, from the University of Washington, that schools do contribute to some of the community spread. So it's a little bit of a mix, but I think I can say that there haven't been any major outbreaks.
Crystal Fincher: [00:29:15] Yeah. And certainly not a simple issue. There are pros and cons to opening. There are pros and cons to staying home. Neither situation is completely ideal, it seems like, so people are trying to move forward in the best way that they can. And certainly the best shot is when all of the recommended precautions are being taken and we hope to continue to see that. I guess the one question I have as we come to the closing minutes here today is, for the kids who have been left behind, or who have fallen behind, who haven't been able to fully participate in online learning, lots of times for factors beyond their control. What are the biggest differences that can be made, or the biggest accommodations that you think would be helpful, to making sure everyone can have an equitable and quality education, whether it's in person or remotely?
Dahlia Bazzaz: [00:30:27] That's also a pretty big question. I think one of the things that school districts have really struggled with, in light of the pandemic, is making sure that they're actually reaching people and that they were reaching people during the closures, during the time when it was remote only. And so we've seen some national reports about how there are some students that have just dropped off from that - we don't know where they went, we don't know where the families are. And so I think what I have heard is going to be pretty critical at this time is making sure that school districts have their communication methods shored up, to make sure that they are actually knowledgeable about what people need and what they want, from this time in particular.
There's still persistent language barriers that maybe some alerts that go out from a school district are not in somebody's home language. And so they're not able to access that, or maybe materials that go out are not translated. And so I think there's just persistent concerns around communicating with families. And I think there has been some investment in improving those methods of communication, but I still hear every day about somebody being left out of the loop, or someone not knowing what's really going on, or not knowing how to advocate. So I think the communication is going to be pretty key there.
Crystal Fincher: [00:32:06] Well, it certainly seems like it. And I thank you for spending the time with us today and just helping us understand where schools are at today, where our kids are at today, and just what is happening. So sincerely appreciate it. Encourage everyone to read Dahlia's reporting at the Seattle Times - it has consistently been excellent and she stays on top of it. So we will do that. And just thank you so much for listening today.
Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones Jr. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I, and now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Just type in "Hacks & Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes. Thanks for tuning in. Talk to you next time.