School in the Time of Covid: Dahlia Bazzaz from the Seattle Times

School in the Time of Covid: Dahlia Bazzaz from the Seattle Times

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

Find the host, Crystal Fincher on Twitter at @finchfrii and find today’s guest, Dahlia Bazzaz, at @dahliabazzaz. More info is available at


“Around Seattle, the oldest students return to school buildings for the first time in more than a year” by Dahlia Bazzaz:

“With many WA students lacking internet, remote learning falls short” by Claudia Rowe:

“Politics,  race were key factors when Washington schools reopened for in-person  learning during the pandemic” by Hannah Furfaro, Manuel Villa, and  Dahlia Bazzaz:

“Here’s what Seattle Schools' first reopening phase could look like” by Anne Dornfeld:

“Washington students won’t take standardized tests this school year” by Dahlia Bazzaz:

“Child care and early learning advocates in Washington state celebrate legislative wins” by Dahlia Bazzaz and Elise Takahama:


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 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 and in the  podcast episode notes. Thanks for tuning in. Talk to you next time.