Rifka Rifiana’s daughter woke up at 5 a.m. — about three hours earlier than usual — because she was so excited to start at Seattle’s Bailey Gatzert Elementary School. 

In front of the building Wednesday, parents held their children’s hands as they walked them to the door and lingered until after the bell rang. Educators received their students with smiles as cars lined up across the parking lot, ready to drop kids off.

Wednesday was the first day of school in the state’s largest school district, after a weeklong delay caused by a teachers strike that made Seattle one of the last districts in Washington to begin the 2022-23 school year.

For Rifiana, the start of school was a relief — she had to take time off work to take care of her daughter. And although her daughter was upset to be starting school late, Rifiana came to the picket lines when the strike began to support and listen to educators. 

“I understand the educators need more, and need to be heard,” she said. 

Seattle Education Association members reached a tentative agreement on a three-year contract Monday night, and on Tuesday they agreed to suspend the strike and go back to work. SEA members must still vote to ratify the contract, which will likely happen this week. Uti Hawkins, SEA vice president and bargaining chair, could not provide an exact date because members need time to go over the lengthy contract. 

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The agreement would cost the district about $228 million, district officials said during a School Board meeting Wednesday.

Seattle Public Schools officials said it was too soon to share enrollment numbers because some families are still registering, but more than 50,000 students started school Wednesday. An official count will be taken Oct. 1.

 Superintendent Brent Jones visited three schools Wednesday. “Thanks to the teamwork across the district, we had a great opening day, with buses running and building leaders ready to roll,” Jones said in a statement. Last school year was one of the rockiest years for transportation in the district. Buses were consistently late, students were dropped off at wrong stops and there weren’t enough drivers.

This school year started off with two private bus contractors providing transportation, instead of one, and there were no canceled bus routes, officials said. However, some families reported delays of more than an hour.

Seattle Public Schools and the SEA were in negotiations for a new contract for 37 days, Hawkins said. 

The SEA vote to end the strike was close. About 78% of members voted, and of those, 57% favored ending the strike. The vote came after a nearly eight-hour Zoom call with tense exchanges between leadership and members.

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During bargaining, one of the biggest fights was for more support for students in classrooms, Hawkins said. “We came in with a lot of different interests in this bargain,” said Hawkins, who said the district surprised the union by trying to take away rights that were established in the previous contract.

Striking educators stressed the importance of addressing workloads to avoid burnout. Teachers, instructional aides and office staff reported being overworked, and unable to meet the demands of student needs during a time when many were suffering from mental health issues and needed more support from schools.

Student Chetan Soni could sense some relief among his teachers at Lincoln High School on the first day back.

“Especially for the AP teachers, because the exam date doesn’t move,” he said with a chuckle.

The junior, who is one of the co-founders of the Seattle Student Union advocacy organization, said he was supporting teachers on picket lines across the city during the strike. While he hasn’t seen the details of the tentative agreement, he said he witnessed some of the issues that pushed educators to the streets, including burnout. At one point, he said, his school’s guidance counselors couldn’t take new appointments because of high demand.

“And I’ve had teachers be really behind on grading because their classes are full, or they’re subbing for other teachers,” said Soni.

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Another worry of SEA members was lack of support staff (instructional aides and paraeducators) to provide a more inclusive education model — a goal for both the union and district during this round of negotiations. Such a model allows students who receive special education services to stay in general education classrooms for as much of the school day as possible. Both sides had different ideas on how to make inclusion work, another reason negotiations lagged. 

The union was asking for more manageable caseloads and teacher-to-student ratios in the special education and multilingual programs. Hawkins said the union was able to maintain ratios but increase the number of staff in classrooms to make caseloads more manageable. 

Although the tentative agreement includes more staff support, Hawkins said, fulfilling that demand hinges on how fast the district can hire instructional aides. 

“Not only were we not set up as a district before to do strong inclusionary practices, we also have a hiring issue in our district,” Hawkins said. “They (SPS) have a lot of hiring to do.”

Educators and instructional assistants have had to take on the task of translating documents for multilingual families, Hawkins said. SEA asked for translation services to be improved by including educator and family input.

In previous years, these complaints “were unseen and unheard,” Hawkins said. “Now we have a voice within our contract to explicitly push the district to do better. There should be no reason why educators are struggling to get (…) legal documents translated.”

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The union was also fighting for more pay for employees who aren’t certificated, including instructional assistants and office staff. Seattle educators and the district agreed to pay raises of 7% for both certificated and classified staff. Originally, the district proposed a 6.5% increase, which included a state-funded 5.5% inflationary adjustment.

“The fight continues to get our district to be able to recruit and retain people because the livable wage within this city is untenable,” Hawkins said. Even though the contract gives educators more money, Hawkins said the increases were insufficient “to provide our educators the things they need to stay in this district right now. There’s a lot of work to do to get there.”

In the second year of the contract, members would receive a 4% salary increase for inflation, and 3% the following year. If the state funds a higher inflationary adjustment, union members will receive whichever is greater, the tentative agreement says.

“We believe that we brought a contract forward that provides not only the workload relief that was necessary but also the incentives that will bring educators here and that will continue to push Seattle Public Schools to do the hiring necessary,” Hawkins said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Dahlia Bazzaz contributed to this report.