Tim Brittell is a 63-year-old teacher and prostate cancer survivor. His attitude toward reopening schools: Don’t play games with risk.

As the president of the teachers union in Northshore, the first district to shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus, one of his first moves was to poll union members’ chronic health conditions and ages. He wanted to know who was most at risk.

The relationship between unions and school districts took on a new dimension during the pandemic. Beyond the traditional back-and-forth over hours, pay and class sizes, Brittell and other union leaders faced more urgency: They needed to think about keeping their colleagues safe from COVID-19. Since spring, they’ve tried to position their unions as key decision-makers not only on redesigning school, but also on when and how to offer in-person classes again. 

In many places, they are succeeding. Along with health guidance, getting buy-in from teachers unions will be a significant factor for when and how school districts eventually start offering in-person classes again, said Brad Marianno, an education professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. 

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BACK TO ‘SCHOOL’

This story is part of a series about what it’s like to start the school year during a pandemic.

Across the state this spring and summer, hundreds of districts negotiated pandemic-specific agreements. A few approached the bargaining table demanding a lower case count — 1 or 0 per 100,000 — before resuming school in-person than state health guidelines, which suggest a partial return to full-time, in-person learning when positivity rates hit 25 cases per 100,000. Like the current moment, the bargaining sometimes got messy. Some worried that the interests of kids could be lost.

“These are important negotiations,” Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, said in late July. “But when kids pay the price in terms of delays … it becomes problematic.”

While Northshore bargained teacher safety issues early and quickly, in other school systems, such as Seattle, negotiations lasted several months and turned political, with years of tension between management and labor boiling over. A summer spike in coronavirus cases, shifting state guidance and disagreements over when and how to offer services meant vital details for fall weren’t released until the very last moment, leaving families in the dark and teachers confused.

“In places where relations between management and labor have been good historically, those relationships remain well,” said Marianno. “But places like Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles — where they’ve had recent bumps in their past, such as a strike — they work in a reactive rather than proactive fashion. Then you end up with a rushed plan. You hate to see it.” In 2015, the Seattle Education Association union went on strike — and it has threatened to strike in subsequent years.

Educators — teachers and instructional assistants — make up around 63% of Washington state’s 153,000 school employees, according to a Seattle Times analysis. Almost 5% are 65 and older, the age demographic at the highest risk for serious complications from the coronavirus. Nearly 40% are over the age of 50. By comparison, that figure approaches 50% for school nurses, who play a critical role in health screenings, and 73% for employees operating machinery, such as school buses.

Brittell was part of Northshore’s pandemic planning from the beginning — and so was the information he collected about his colleagues’ health.

“How much opposition do you think we got from government officials that we were gonna close? We closed anyway,” said Brittell of Northshore’s early closures. “The CDC had told us not to worry even as they transported (infected people) in hazmat suits.”

In early February, he and the superintendent, Michelle Reid, made a commitment to keep in touch daily over the phone about the virus. Her statement on the March 4 closure decision included data from Brittell’s member poll. 

“Children are not believed to be at serious risk for the disease, but we must be mindful of the population that is at higher risk,” Reid wrote in a letter to families. “The conservative number calculated for those 60 and over alone is … over 16% of our staff.” 

Powerful roles

Teachers unions, especially in the state’s largest districts, have always been key power players. They successfully fought for double-digit raises and advanced racial and social justice causes. They’ve also expanded in size in some places, absorbing other school employees such as front-office workers, giving them more bargaining power.

At the state level, the Washington Education Association — which oversees 96% of teacher union contracts — lobbies in the Legislature. It has one of the state’s largest political action committees.

The pandemic came not long after teacher strikes nationwide and more pressure for unions to prove themselves worthy to their members: The 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) struck down laws requiring public-sector employees to pay into their unions for bargaining representation. This led to a wave of more political activism and, particularly in large urban districts, an expanded list of negotiating priorities to include social justice demands such as protections for undocumented students, said Marianno. 

This summer, beyond health and safety considerations, teachers unions pushed back on acting as child care providers, and demanded more training for online learning, computer devices for staff members and more flexible sick leave. They’ve required districts to deliver reports on HVAC systems. They’ve tied pre-pandemic demands — training on technology, culturally responsive instruction, more nurses and counselors — to new realities.

“The administrators aren’t out to get us, but they don’t understand some of the things that happen in classrooms,” said Shannon Ergun, president of the Tacoma Education Association. “They think of classrooms like you see on television — 25 children sitting at their desks. But there is no standard classroom.”

In districts like Seattle, labor conflicts began almost immediately after buildings closed due to the pandemic, which stalled online learning and child care. Teachers said they felt unprepared and not listened to.

In July, after Trump administration officials first tried to pressure school districts to reopen, the union called the district’s plan to reopen schools in a hybrid model “reckless.” It pushed back — successfully — against those plans ahead of warnings against reopening in person from King County Health officials. The two parties settled on an agreement in late August that formalizes the involvement of at least two union members on a committee that makes recommendations to the superintendent about school reopening.

Most of the summer’s tension surrounded which metrics to use before considering a reopening, and how to offer in-person services for special education.

“The more granular the agreement, particularly around in-person reopening, the longer the negotiation takes,” said Julie Popper, a spokesperson for WEA.

Some agreements reached in Puget Sound region districts outline stages for reopening that start with high-needs populations of students, such as English learners. In many of those agreements, which call for full remote learning this fall, special education students will be seen in person on a case-by-case basis. In Seattle, the agreement calls for a nurse to be present when students are evaluated in-person for disabilities.

Not every union exerted the same influence. . 

In Moses Lake, one of the largest school districts planning to offer a hybrid school option, the decision was left up to the School Board and superintendent.

The union’s goal in this case was to make sure each option was as safe as possible, said Jay Mather, president of the Moses Lake union. But he conceded the district’s decision was worrisome. “Our numbers per 100,000 in Grant County are pretty high,” he said. “We’d like to be able to provide that continuity, and not have to revert to a model that is 100% remote again.” 

Northshore largely skirted the politics of these disputes. Brittell, who’s held his post for the past 16 years — he still “had hair” when he started — knows he’s in a rare spot. He shares a close relationship with Reid, the superintendent. As other districts’ contract talks dragged on for months, Northshore wrapped up its bargaining after just two and a half weeks in late July. 

“We (as an association) haven’t had a single fundamental disagreement,” he said. “Teachers have been at the highest level of designing the school year.” 

It’s important for districts to involve teachers in decision-making, said Marianno, and they should be part of a wide array of stakeholders.

“We have to be careful not to overplay the hand. Teachers had quite a bit of support from parents in the beginning of the pandemic. But the longer the pandemic drags on, the more parental support is going to wane,” he said. “There will be increasing pressure to not get hung up on union demands that don’t encourage the safe return to school.” In some places outside of Washington, Marianno said, parents are forming their own “unions” to try to increase their power in decision-making.

Starting from scratch

With many of the details for Seattle’s schools released at the last minute, teachers say they feel like they’re starting their first year of teaching again. They’re continuing to ask school districts to be more responsive.

Heather Cline, a Seattle Public Schools high school teacher who used to work in Northshore, noticed the difference. 

“It was a partnership,” she said of Northshore’s relationship with teachers. “They wanted and valued input from the teachers. They rolled out quickly. I saw Dr. Reid’s statement about schools closing, and it mentioned” Brittell’s poll. 

Not so much the case for SPS, Cline said. 

She pointed to the district’s persistent usage of Microsoft Teams rather than Zoom as an example of the disconnect between management and labor. Since the spring many educators have complained Teams is glitchy and cumbersome to use, but the district has instructed them against using Zoom or other alternatives, causing some teachers to go rogue. 

On Friday, the first day of school in Seattle, an internet-related issue locked many families out of the learning platform. For others, it significantly slowed the day down.

SPS spokesman Tim Robinson said the district uses Teams because it is more secure. It recently enabled the feature to create breakout rooms on the platform, one of the factors that made Zoom more attractive to educators. The district may allow teachers to use a platform other than Teams, he added, if a student needs a feature that’s missing.

“Teachers are being asked to recreate and teach online on the fly,” said Cline, who said on Tuesday she did not have basic materials to teach her high school Spanish class. “My thought is — shouldn’t they be giving us a toolbox and filling it with as many tools as possible?”