Seattle Public Schools’ announcement Wednesday that masks would be optional in classes and buses starting Monday was met with the threat of a walkout from students, while educators alleged the district was violating its contract with the teachers union. 

It was also shaping up to be a first test for interim Superintendent Brent Jones, who is expected to get the job permanently if his contract is approved by the school board in the coming weeks.

“We condemn this move by Seattle Public Schools,” said a statement from the Seattle Student Union, a group of student advocates. “We call on the superintendent and the school board to stop the removal of the mask mandate, or we will be forced to walk out of school for our own safety.”

Educators say the decision is a failure on Jones’ part and a violation of the Seattle Education Association’s memorandum of understanding with the district. Bargaining over the mask mandate was scheduled for Friday, said a statement from SEA President Jennifer Matter and Uti Hawkins, SEA’s bargaining chair.

“The District cannot unilaterally ignore an agreed-upon MOU, and now is leaving educators scrambling with just days before lifting the mask mandate,” Matter and Hawkins said. “Clearly, SPS misled us.”

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Seattle Schools is aware of union concerns, said Bev Redmond, assistant superintendent of public affairs. “We were in discussions with SEA leadership on this matter before this decision was made and they expressed understanding of this potential change and a willingness to work together to bargain the impacts of the district’s decision,” she said.

The switch to optional masking comes after Gov. Jay Inslee announced in February that mask mandates would be dropped at schools, child care facilities and most other businesses, although school districts could choose to require students and teachers to continue to wear masks after the mandate ends. Other Seattle-area school districts have also announced they are making masks optional starting Monday, including Lake Washington, Bellevue, Issaquah, Renton, Auburn, and Northshore. 

Some Seattle educators are supportive of the district’s move. Teaching and learning is easier without masks, especially when teaching students how to spell, said Amy West, a third grade teacher at Arbor Heights Elementary. 

“I’m personally excited about it,” she said. “I’ve been feeling the dopamine deficit because so many of the exchanges we have in school are nonverbal, so we smile frequently and students use other expressions rather than raising their hands.”

Some of West’s third-graders say masks give them security, she said, but others need to be constantly reminded to wear their masks correctly.

SPS psychologist Vaughan Amaré, who has a compromised immunity and works hands-on in close proximity with students, is concerned about the change. Amaré notes that there aren’t substitutes for school psychologists, and if one gets sick the staff needs to figure out how to get the work done. And state and federal referral timelines must be met, Amaré said. 

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“Being out sick is not an excuse for getting any of those timelines extended,” said Amaré, who works at Denny International Middle School. 

Seattle parents also have reservations about dropping the mask mandate. The Seattle Council PTSA sent the board a letter on March 2 asking to keep mask requirements in schools.

“It’s an understatement to say I’m disappointed,” said Lauren Hipp, a parent of two Graham Hill Elementary students. “I have a kid under 5 at home and that’s a safety concern for me and there’s many who have vulnerable family members.”

Even though the mandate is ending, the SPS statement says “continued masking by staff and students is strongly encouraged.” 

“While Public Health is no longer mandating masks, masking is an individual choice,” Jones said in the statement. “We won’t tolerate shaming or judging anyone in our schools for wearing a mask or not wearing a mask.”

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The district has to be ready to return to masking or other COVID-19 safety measures if community transmissions increase or an outbreak occurs in a classroom, school or district building, Jones said. That echoes the new guidelines issued by the state Department of Health this week, which called for a return to masks if there are clusters or outbreaks of the disease in classrooms, or among groups of students, such as a sports team or choir class.

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Still, students are upset the district is backpedaling on stronger safety protocols in schools, said Natalya McConnell, co-founder of the student union and sophomore at Franklin High School. In January, students held a rally in front of district headquarters asking for better-quality masks.

“Two months later, the district is already taking away COVID precautions that we fought for,” McConnell said. “Wearing a mask is not your personal choice, it affects everyone else around you. If the school district lifts the mask mandate, it means they are allowing our safety to be in jeopardy.”

The district notified the community about the change around lunchtime and it was all anybody could talk about, said Delano Cardova, co-founder of the student union and senior at Franklin. 

“One of the biggest things I’m proud of is we think as a community and we have that South End mentality,” Cordova said. “We are not just a singular person — we are part of an entity. Our actions have repercussions on our community.”

Franklin sophomore Noelle Chan said the reactions from her peers were a mixed bag — some are happy it’s being lifted, but others are concerned. She said she will continue to wear her mask at school to protect people “who might not be vaccinated or be immune-compromised.” 

The Seattle Council PTSA’s March 2 letter noted that vaccines aren’t available for children under 5, and some adults can’t receive the vaccine because of health complications.

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“Distribution and accessibility of vaccinations continue to follow the systemic patterns of racism in the United States, making it such that people living in poverty, communities of color, and students furthest from educational justice have lower vaccination rates,” the letter said.

Seattle Schools said it informed its labor partners of the mask change, including SEA, but Matter said the district is going back on its commitment to provide trust, predictability, and clear, consistent communication to the community and educators. 

“Making announcements without answers to common questions and without consultation with those having to implement changes erodes SPS’ credibility,” Matter and Hawkins said. “This type of chaos, confusion, and distrust directly leads to educator burnout and to educators leaving the District and the profession.”

The Seattle Student Union is calling the mask change a political tactic to keep elected officials in office and are demanding the district reinstate the mandate. “As students, we should not have to be in the situation where we have to beg the school to put in place common-sense solutions.”

The controversy makes for a rocky start between Jones, the interim superintendent, and the teachers union. Jones is the only candidate being considered for the district’s next superintendent and is currently negotiating his contract to become the district’s next permanent leader. 

“He was lauded for the stability he created and his ability to work with labor and others, but today he failed,” Matter and Hawkins said. “SEA was making progress in our relationship but we now have serious concerns about his leadership. Sadly, our trust has been shaken and we have gone backward. This does not bode well for future negotiations.”

Seattle Times staff reporters Dahlia Bazzaz and Nina Shapiro contributed to this report.