If Cherylynne Crowther had been asked to bet whether Seattle Public Schools would make good on a commitment to have her son Max back in school Thursday, she would have wagered against it.
Still, when she heard the news Tuesday that in-person instruction for some students with disabilities was, indeed, going to be pushed back by more than two weeks, it stung. The promise of return had started to feel real last week, when she and Max, who has physical and intellectual disabilities, met a school bus driver testing out the route from their home to Roosevelt High School.
Under the agreement, about 1,100 students who are enrolled in special education and preschool will return to class March 29. The district did not announce dates for other grades to return to school, including for kindergartners through first grade students, who are the target groups in the current reopening plan being negotiated.
Max, while initially sad he wouldn’t see his friends, took the change of plans well, saying he was “excited” to start at a later date. His mother hopes the latest date, stated in a rare joint announcement between the school district and union, will stick. But she doesn’t have high expectations.
“You want to trust that they’re going to deliver, and when that trust is abused, it’s difficult,” said Crowther, her voice quivering. “It was like, ‘OK guys, you finally broke me.'”
As the school district and union negotiate on a plan to expand in-person instruction, trust is wearing thin for families who have been waiting on in-person services for students with disabilities for months and receiving mixed messages about start dates from the district. The goal post for certain students with severe disabilities to return to the classroom has shifted three times, from March 1 to March 11 to March 29.
The new start date comes after intense opposition from the Seattle Education Association (SEA) union to a district plan to summon 700 educators back to buildings this week to teach, before an agreement on expanding in-person instruction had been reached. Those educators were supposed to report to their buildings on Monday to ready their classrooms for learning, but a campaign by the SEA asked them to stay remote.
This week, union and district officials say they’ve turned a new page and are making progress on an effort to bring these students back. A safety check of some district buildings by union and district officials, an independent heating, ventilation and air conditioning system contractor and the state Labor & Industries department found no major issues, according to a release from the two parties.
“Over the past weekend in bargaining, we had a breakthrough and some really honest discussions. We realized how close we are on some issues,” said Jennifer Matter, president of SEA. “I think we recognized in that talk about how these debates are having a toll on the school community.”
In the announcement, the district disclosed it had rescinded the order sending 700 educators back to the classroom. It’s unclear how many appeared at their buildings this week. In turn, the union withdrew three unfair labor practice complaints it had lodged against the district.
Teachers have raised concerns about the lack of standard safety protocols across schools that are open for a small set of students with disabilities. Some said they were hopeful about the news, and shared the concerns about mixed messages around reopening.
“I’m really glad for this announcement. It shows that the concerns are being taken seriously,” said Michelle Vecchio, a special education teacher who has been teaching kids one-on-one in person at Nova High School this year. “I can imagine parents are very frustrated. I hope we can inform them based on what’s actually being negotiated.”
Chandra Hampson, president of the Seattle School Board, said she understands parents’ frustration about the changing dates. She said the district’s reopening plans were approved under the assumption that they would provide time for a deal to be reached with the union.
“It’s not just wishful thinking, it’s setting the expectation,” said Hampson. “While we have to apologize and own how damaging it can feel, we have to balance that with benefit to kids if we actually come back in a better, more cohesive, collaborative place … We will make calls directly to families who are deeply suffering.”