Seattle Public Schools, the first urban school system in the country to close due to the coronavirus, is now among the last to reopen to a broader set of students as parents, administrators and teachers across a city split along complicated fault lines.
At the bargaining table, the district and its teachers union are divided on a plan to bring back certain students with disabilities and preschoolers through first graders, prompting the district to request mediation services from the state this week. And while many parents are deeply frustrated with the demands of remote school, a survey of more than 10,000 families eligible to return shows they are divided over sending their kids back.
Earlier this month, Superintendent Denise Juneau walked back a March 1 opening date to offer in-person instruction to more than 11,000 students as negotiations continued with the Seattle Education Association union, which represents 6,000 educators.
For the week of Feb. 8, the most recent date for which data is available statewide, SPS reported teaching 144 students in person. Compared to 275 other Washington state school districts’ weekly averages of the number of students being taught in person, SPS — the state’s largest district with 50,000-plus students — falls near 200th place, according to a Seattle Times analysis.
The most urgent concern driving reopening is more access to services for students with disabilities, many of whom have struggled in remote learning environments. Janis White, president of Seattle’s special education parent group, said some parents were told their kids would receive in-person services months ago. About 2,500 of the district’s 8,000 students with disabilities would be eligible to return in person. A district survey showed around 40% of those families said they would send their kids back into the classroom, although about a quarter didn’t respond.
“We’re obligated morally, ethically, and we need to be able to get there,” said Chandra Hampson, president of the Seattle School Board.
The district has promised parents more information next week, but those who are eager to have their kids back in school this spring are tempering their expectations.
“I have to step away from following the twists and turns sometimes so I don’t get stressed about it,” said Jenny Salomon, the parent of a third grader who she says has struggled with remote learning. “There’s only so much I can take.”
Like its counterparts in other teachers union strongholds like Chicago, the union here is pushing for specific language outlining safety measures. It wants contact tracing and flexible work accommodations included in a new agreement, such as a remote-work option for teachers who haven’t been vaccinated, and access to rapid testing for the virus every week. On Tuesday, union president Jennifer Matter said the union was working through the district’s proposal for a hybrid schedule that would let one group of teachers teach in person, and another teach remotely.
Management-labor relations were bumpy and negotiations were lengthy before the pandemic, but Seattle also started the reopening conversation later than many other districts. In the fall, some King County school districts — including Bellevue — announced plans to return, then backtracked. Juneau said she was trying to avoid a situation where the district would be forced to close after reopening.
After a cautionary report from health officials and union pushback jettisoned the district’s proposal for returning to school buildings last fall, bargaining in the summer focused largely on remote learning. The August agreement specified that bargaining would restart when the district made “changes to in-person instruction.”
Matter said the union tried to raise some issues around health and safety concerns outside of bargaining, but “what we discovered is that they were not willing to have conversations.”
“The SEA president’s comments don’t accurately reflect our work with SEA,” district spokesperson Tim Robinson wrote in an email on Friday. “SEA has had seats on leadership groups and has been engaged in district planning about in-person learning since last spring.”
Though the district has requested mediation from the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC), the parties haven’t yet scheduled a bargaining session with a mediator. On Friday, Robinson said SEA declined mediation support.
Matter disputes this.
“SPS requested PERC’s help for reasons you’d have to ask them. SEA did not request PERC’s help because we see progress being made in negotiations. SPS never asked SEA whether PERC could join a bargaining session so to say we declined is false,” she wrote in a text.
A January survey of about half of SEA’s members shows 62% would be unwilling to return to the classroom until “educators have the option to be fully vaccinated.” Thirty-seven percent of those who took the survey do not believe a return to in-person instruction should happen this spring, regardless of the vaccine.
“Trust me, I am not a happy camper teaching on screens,” said Richard Katz, 60, a social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School. “But I would need to have both shots in my arm. My wife, who is younger than me, has immunity issues. I’m not extremely confident. I just think the district doesn’t know what they’re up against.”
The district and union have also expressed concern about the racial disparities reflected in return-to-school surveys, mirroring a national trust gap in school-reopening decisions among families of color, whose lives have been disproportionately impacted by the virus and racism in the school environment.
A survey of 10,000 families whose students are eligible to return to in-person instruction in Seattle shows just a six percentage-point difference in the number of parents opting in-person over remote, 46% vs. 40%, respectively.
But when broken down by race, the survey shows a larger split. About 56% of white respondents opted for in-person learning, versus 38% for people of color, and 33% of parents of African American male students, the population the district has sworn to serve in its five-year strategic plan.
But a higher number of families of color also did not respond to the survey, pointing to the district’s long standing challenges with reaching all of its families. Eight percent of white parents didn’t reply, versus 19% of parents of color.
Parent volunteers in Southeast Seattle, the most racially diverse area of the city, assembled a supplementary survey of parents for this reason that includes more detailed questions.
“This is the data that needs to be sought out and it needs to be valued,” said O’Hara Jiménez, director of the Southeast Seattle region for the citywide PTSA. “We need to not only be asking if parents want their kids to return, but why or why not.”
The organization plans to present the results of the survey, which haven’t been summarized yet, to the school district. Anecdotally, Jiménez said, parents in the region are also split on the issue of reopening. She meets weekly with School Board member Brandon Hersey and other parents in South Seattle on the topic of equitably opening schools.
“There’s just a concern that parents and guardians and students just don’t have the information they need to feel like they’re able to make any of these decisions,” she said.
It seems as though there is simultaneously too little and too much information available around school reopening, said Veena Prasad, a parent with twins attending Pathfinder K-8 in West Seattle.
“It’s a mountain of information to wade through at times. People keep saying there’s not a lot of impact of the virus on little kids,” said Prasad. But the communication from the district asking whether she wanted her kids to return in person felt slim on details, and caught her by surprise.
“Frankly, I feel confused at every step,” said Prasad. “I don’t know what the safest thing for us to decide is.”
She wasn’t able to get more information about the plan from people she spoke to at her school. Based on news about the new variants, and the fact that her children might not get the same teacher if they opted to learn in person, she decided to mark remote only.
“It’s a tough decision,” said Prasad. “I think the district is trying its best. I know many parents want to send their kids back for mental health and connection. I do agree that the district needs to make plans to reopen, but I would only send my kids back in person if it were a solid plan.”
This story was updated on Feb. 19 to reflect new comments from the district and teachers union about bargaining.