By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Standing in front of a large easel pad, a teacher shows a drawing of a student with a birthday cake.
“I pictured Lore at her cake with her family all around singing,” she says.
But the classroom is empty. And stuffed animals on the floor are the only spectators.
The scene is from one of hundreds of videos created by the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) in response to the closure of schools during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
It reflects both the ingenuity and desperation of teachers, educators, and administrators as they try to reach the most marginalized students during a crisis unprecedented in modern times.
“No matter how school looks, we are in a different era of public education,” said Denise Juneau, superintendent of SPS, during a video meeting organized by the Asian Pacific Directors’ Coalition (APDC) on May 15.
“We are going to have to lean on technology for a while,” she said.
That is only one of the challenges facing educators during this time. While SPS is not anticipating any layoffs this year, next year is uncertain.
Such uncertainty reflects a broader unease rippling through most educational institutions in Washington state. In the state’s higher education system, for instance, budget cuts appear inevitable.
And educators are worrying, too, that international students from Asia, whether through fear or a limiting of visas by the federal government, may fail to show up in their usual large numbers, starving the schools of needed extra revenue.
A last-ditch effort
It was Friday night and Cari Campbell had only the coming weekend before she and her team had to roll out the first week of videos for over 50,000 SPS students.
Schools had closed the week before. Administrators had had to contend with instantly setting up 26 meal sites around the city for students relying on breakfasts and lunches. They had also coordinated with FareStart, which had offered to provide dinners.
Besides that, they had to put together educational packets to send out to parents for all grades, including kindergarten.
They had to expand child care for essential staff, coordinate lesson planning, and instruct teachers and administrators in new technology so they could hold meetings and coordinate relief efforts.
But perhaps the most important aspect of school—one that no other social service could replicate—was the most difficult to replicate. They needed to figure out how to maintain connections with teachers.
“Especially for families facing barriers, we tried to keep our doors open as long as possible,” said Campbell, a former fifth-grade teacher who is now the district’s Chief Public Affairs Officer.
“It’s not just for food access, but for basic social and emotional health, and for physical health,” she said.
But in the absence of school, she and her team proposed broadcasting short, catchy lessons of 15-20 minutes. These videos would be paired with content from the educational packets sent out to all students.
Campbell had worked planning similar lessons for the Tacoma Art Museum.
“They have to have a hook,” she said. The hook in the recent video in the empty classroom instantly communicates to children that they are not alone.
Catchy, calming music is followed by a shot of their teacher’s face. Raising her head to the camera, her long black hair falls back from her face, and her mouth forms a wide O in surprise.
“Oh!” she exclaims. “Hi scholars, my fabulous second and third graders! I was just fidgeting in my chair to get comfortable.” She knits her brow in concentration, then raises a hand, palm up, to invite them to join her.
“And I thought, were any of you fidgeting since I saw you last?” she asks.
Producing such content was only half the struggle. Each video by law required subtitles, the lessons had to be coordinated with the paper learning packets sent out from the meal sites, and teachers that were broadcasting from home had to be taught how to use new technology.
“We were providing a level of details to teachers,” said Campbell. “We’d be writing out all the steps for recording from home, such as, ‘You’re going to save it to this file, then you’re going to upload it to this folder, and if you’re having trouble, call this person.’”
Present and future challenges
Seattle’s institutions of higher education are facing similar challenges.
At Seattle Colleges, half of all faculty members have never taught a course online. And half of all students have never taken one, said Dr. Shouan Pan, chancellor, during the APDC conference.
But unlike SPS, where future financial support depends entirely on the state Legislature, colleges and universities are facing certain shortfalls in funding.
Seattle College is facing 15% budget cuts and an uncertain loss of revenue from international students that may not be able to come, said Pan.
At the University of Washington School of Education, where nearly one third of the students are Asian Pacific Islander (API), Dean Mia Tuan is “bracing for lots of things to shake out and see how they affect our bottom line and our ability to do our missions.”
“This is not just a temporary response, we’re in it for the long haul, and that’s where the fatigue and worry sets in,” she said during the APDC conference.
In a subsequent email, however, Tuan emphasized that “early numbers of international undergraduate students declaring are consistent with previous years.” Still, it is not clear how many of them will “melt” away before fall semester, she said. Nor is it clear if their inability to get student visas will further winnow away their numbers.
Reaching the marginalized
After that first week, Campbell and her team moved into high gear, producing between 70 and 90 videos per week. They knew that only 37% of families in the district had access to their educational programming through cable.
But KOMO-TV offered to help. And they also knew that 70% of families in schools with a high free and reduced lunch rate use their smartphones to watch videos.
While it is not clear if paying for data streaming is a struggle for poor families, Campbell and her team have already reached a significant number of students this way.
There have been over 240,000 views of the videos on YouTube and close to 20,000 hours of content watched, she said.
“Reaching families and students furthest away from educational justice has centered this body of work from day one,” she said. ν
The Seattle Public Schools channel can be seen on: https://www.seattleschools.org/district/calendars/news/what_s_new/coronavirus_update/resources/sps_tv.
It can also be accessed on Comcast channel 26.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.