by Ari Robin McKenna
A few weeks ago, many members of the tight-knit staff of Campbell Hill Elementary School convened online. They felt that their community didn’t have enough information to make a fully informed decision about whether or not to send their kids back into school buildings as part of Renton School District’s (RSD) phased return to hybrid learning beginning March 3. Decisions about when and how to return to classroom instruction are especially charged in the Skyway neighborhood, where Campbell Hill is located. It is both historically underinvested in and also has higher rates of COVID-19 infections than more affluent areas of King County. The potential of another COVID-19 spike and the resulting community death toll weigh heavily on the district’s decision to return, as do concerns about upended classes and the “learning drift” of breaking away from the virtual educational experience some teachers have worked so hard to provide.
According to the RSD website, on March 3, phase one of in-person learning will begin with “inclusive preschool, kindergarten and elementary students served in self-contained classrooms,” taking place in school for two hours and fifteen minutes a day. This plan phases in the rest of elementary school, one grade at a time every week or so, through the end of April. Randy Matheson, executive director of Community Relations at RSD, said at a recent district information session that “about 99% of our roughly 7,600 families … responded to the survey, so we had an immense survey response by our parents. About 50% to 53% said that they want to remain within home learning.”
Yet while about 60% of Campbell Hill Elementary’s families had initially expressed their intent to continue with online learning, doubts formed among staff about whether those choosing the hybrid model understood what it would actually look like for students. Lindsey Hand, a second grade teacher, says, “We didn’t feel like families truly understood the implications of returning to in-person learning. You’re not going to have recess. You’re not going to have lunch at school. You’re here for just about two hours a day and you’re going to have many new classmates and [in many cases] new teachers. We felt like it was really important to have family voice in this.”
Besides writing a letter to the district voicing their concerns, Campbell Hill staff also teamed up with admin to quickly organize a “Family Information and Community Listening Night” and, with only four days notice, managed to get about one third of families to virtually attend the school event: 110 people signed on in separate Zoom sessions run in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Nahstassia Abdullah, who has a son in third grade and a daughter in fourth, said after attending the information night, “Myself included, a lot of other parents didn’t understand and didn’t know that it [in-classroom instruction] would only be for two hours a day. We didn’t know that the teacher that they have, may not be the teacher that they have going into school.”
Forty-eight parents that attended the information night walked back their decision to return to in-person learning that evening, and word continued to spread after the event. As of publication, 77% of Campbell Hill’s student population will be learning from home for the remainder of the year, and some on staff think that number could rise to 80% before March 3.
Briana Nelson and Paula Kildal, Campbell Hill’s two third grade teachers, have received word that only three of their 52 second graders will be returning for in-person learning, and the online learning environment Nelson and Kildal have worked hard to co-construct is “incredible,” says Campbell Hill math coach Mandy Hubbard. “It feels like they’ve built a classroom community; kids are learning and engaging and they are super responsive in their planning.”
Nelson, who grew up in the Rainier Valley, is certain that moving to a hybrid model at this point in the school year for just three students will disrupt her and Kildal’s ability to co-plan effectively, and that it will not benefit their third graders — not to mention the potential dangers reopening could have on their community.
“I think you’re putting students at stress and at worry by trying to push them back into the classroom,” Nelson said. “I have a lot of students who are scared. They don’t want to go back because of how uncertain things are: family members who have passed from it [COVID-19] … family members who have gotten the virus.
“It’s frustrating to think that you would want to pull students out of their routines that they’ve already established and things that they’ve been working on all year, to now you’re having teachers having to balance teaching a virtual class and teaching an in-person class, and the learning drift that will happen there.
“The loudest narrative about teachers during the pandemic is that we just show up on Zoom, we’re reading out of a book, we teach the damned thing and then keep it moving. I don’t think those people really understand the intentionality, the time, the creativity that it takes into creating a successful virtual learning space for kids. So to me it’s kind of a slap in the face. You’re negating the work that we’ve already been doing to make sure kids are successful now.”
Abdullah, whose daughter, Nia, was in Nelson’s class last year, said Nia “made great strides” while with Nelson in-person but says she’s also been pleasantly surprised at how her third grade son Cameron has “made tremendous strides as well” in Nelson’s virtual learning environment. While Nelson feels like she and Kildal’s teaching practice has become more focused on what matters, Abdullah is thrilled to see a more focused side of Cameron emerge as well. “He gets up by himself. He gets himself ready. He feeds himself. He gets to class. Computer-wise, he knows exactly what to do. It’s just an awesome way for him to learn independence.” Cameron and his friends call each other and discuss homework in the afternoon, and “Ms. Nelson” replies quickly to Abdullah’s questions, so it feels like “a collective work.”
While proud of her son and grateful for his teacher, she doubts Cameron could keep his face mask on for 135 minutes straight and, like the overwhelming majority of staff and parents in the Campbell Hill School community who now know what hybrid learning will look like, is perplexed. “If it isn’t broke, why fix it right now? Our kids are safe. Keep it online. These kids, they’re at home, they’re in their working environment. It’s working. The kids are learning. They’ve already adapted to this way, so why change it? Why uproot them when they don’t have to be? ‛Safety’s First,’ but not in this case.”
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him through his website.
Featured Image: Photo of Campbell Hill Elementary School in Skyway by Ari McKenna.
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