Seattle educators are pushing back against Seattle Public Schools’ move to make masks optional in classrooms and buses — an issue the teachers union says exemplifies repeated “unilateral decision making” by the district.

Dozens of Seattle Education Association members, students and community members rallied Wednesday evening in front of the district’s headquarters, the John Stanford Center, calling for officials to fix their strained relationship by including teachers and students in conversations.

Union members, wearing red shirts as a sign of solidarity, held up signs that said, “Together we are powerful,” “Decision without discussion is not cool,” and “Where was the communication?”

Seattle Public Schools to lift mask mandate, but some say it’s too soon

“SPS can’t continue the same behavior of top-down decision-making without educator or student voice and expect different outcomes for students,” SEA President Jennifer Matter said in a statement. “Schools work best when we listen to and make informed decisions based on educators and students in the buildings, along with their families.” 

The district also faces a student walkout, planned for Monday by the Seattle Student Union, a group of student advocates, if mask mandates aren’t reinstated

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SEA claims the district violated a memorandum of understanding when Superintendent Brent Jones announced the end of mask requirements last week without bargaining.

A lot of thoughtful planning was put into negotiating SEA’s MOU, said Kara Golgert, a special-education teacher at Sacagawea Elementary school. Making a decision to end masking requirements before renegotiating, “makes it feel like none of that matters,” she said.

“I have to draw the conclusion that they (SPS) didn’t listen,” Golgert said.

Assistant Superintendent of Public Affairs Bev Redmond said Wednesday that Seattle Schools is committed to working with its labor partners. The district, officials said, had discussions with SEA leadership about making masks optional ahead of the announcement, and were willing to work together and bargain the impacts of the change. 

“Understandably, there are many different beliefs, opinions, reasons, and comfort levels around this decision,” Redmond said in a statement. “SPS is committed to helping students and staff move forward through this time of transition with reassurance, empathy, and respect for the personal choice to mask or not.”

SEA has successfully negotiated with the district during the pandemic, but the process was undermined by the way the district made its decision to make masks optional, said SEA Vice President Uti Hawkins.

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“We are not asking for more than the conditions for which we believe every worker deserves as we transition right now,” Hawkins said. “We need to have the things so that we make sure we get through this year and have the focus on learning. You can’t do that if you walk away from our table.”

At Wednesday’s regular school board meeting, school board member Lisa Rivera Smith said though the district may not have violated the MOU, they broke trust. She said she regrets diminishing the anxieties and concerns of the community about masks.

“Even when we’re right we can be wrong,” Rivera Smith said. “Whether or not we haven’t technically violated the MOU, that was separate from the fact that many are hurt right now by the change and trust being broken.”

Jones reiterated the district’s commitment to following public health guidelines during the board meeting. 

“When Seattle and King County Public Health asked us to require universal masking we did so,” Jones said. “As of last week, Seattle King County Public Health told us to not require masks so we shifted to strongly recommending masks.”

During Jones’ state of the district speech Tuesday, he spoke about the importance of working collaboratively with students and families, educators, board members, and city leaders to reach the district’s mission to build an anti-racist system that supports those furthest from educational justice.

The clash over the dropping of mask mandates is shaping up to be the first test for Jones, who was just voted in as Seattle Schools’ permanent leader Friday.

Board members, city leaders and community members have touted Jones’ ability to engage and work collaboratively, as they look to him to provide stability in a district that has had a revolving door of superintendents in the past decade. But some have criticized the board’s superintendent search process because of its quick turnaround and lack of community input.