Now that teachers are able to get COVID-19 vaccines, Seattle Public Schools and other Washington school districts should act quickly to resume in-person learning, starting with younger and vulnerable students.
But as of Thursday, Seattle Public Schools teachers are refusing, voting instead to ignore a district directive that around 700 educators of special-needs and preschool students return to classrooms on Monday. This is especially disappointing as too many children are falling through the cracks of remote learning.
More than 200 Washington school districts already are safely teaching some students in classrooms — some since the start of the school year. The rest should follow, now that the state is complying with President Joe Biden’s directive to make teachers, school support staff and child-care workers immediately eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. The state’s largest school district should be able to figure this out.
Seattle School Board members voted unanimously last December to resume small-group, in-person instruction on March 1 for preschoolers, kindergartners, first graders and some students with disabilities. But, despite more than a month of negotiations, the district and Seattle Education Association negotiators haven’t agreed on how to do that.
On Feb. 25, with the most vulnerable students in mind, the board declared about 700 special education and preschool instructors “essential” — as defined under its current agreement with the union. The board directed the instructors to return to school buildings and pushed the start date back a week to Monday to give everyone time to prepare.
School board members were right to try and break the logjam as contract negotiations sputter, the school year dwindles and vulnerable students are left behind by remote instruction. But the SEA fired back, filing unfair labor practice complaints with the state Public Employment Relations Commission on behalf of licensed teachers, paraprofessionals and office staff, asking that it order the district to maintain the status quo until the union and school district reach a new agreement.
On Thursday, union leaders announced that its members had overwhelmingly voted to keep working in their current modes, despite the school board and administrators’ directive. Their intransigence is a slap in the face to parents and students who deserve the option of safe, in-person instruction.
A review of the most recent bargaining proposals show that both parties agree with broad commitments to meet all public health guidelines for safe operation and effective response to COVID-19 outbreaks, and to implement a hybrid model of instruction that groups students in small cohorts and minimizes interactions between those groups. But union negotiators want the district to commit to dozens of detailed and rigid safety, equity and communications protocols that would lock administrators into minutiae, even as circumstances change.
SEA President Jennifer Matter says the district hasn’t been “fully investing their time and energy into the work at the bargaining table.” She says previous complaints about facilities have gone unaddressed, so the union leaders are skeptical of the district officials now.
The union’s concerns may be heartfelt, but they are misplaced. Parents can still choose remote learning for their children. Teachers with health conditions that make them at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 can request alternative assignments. SPS spokesman Tim Robinson says the district has made sure school buildings are safe and ready for students and educators. If that’s not enough to convince skeptical teachers, state law and public health orders require schools to follow state public-safety protocols for safe instruction, including masks, social distancing and enhanced sanitation. If the district fails to do so, local health officers can shut them down.
SEA should acknowledge these realities and welcome the return of classroom instruction, starting with students scheduled to return this month, followed by all elementary grades. If they don’t, the district should keep pushing.
The Washington Constitution guarantees all students access to public education. In that light, all Seattle public schoolteachers are “essential.”