BELLEVUE — As 22 second graders at Newport Heights Elementary School showed up to classrooms Thursday, they wore their best: sparkly shirts, bright beads in their braids and matching masks.
A line of Bellevue School District employees cheered them inside a side entrance to the building, where school nurse Cori Ponte greeted them by name, guided them to sanitizer and sent them on their way to the classrooms.
“It’s a special day,” a girl named Lexi said as she stood on the yellow social distancing dot outside the building, wearing a pink-sequined dress.
But for some adults across the district, the day had also marked a boiling point. Some teachers called to buildings didn’t show up, and others who teach online didn’t hold live classes Thursday, instead offering activities for students to complete. Their union, the Bellevue Education Association, opposes the district’s plans to bring more K-2 students into classrooms, saying vaccines should be in place first.
The dispute landed in court.
A few hours after school started, the Bellevue district sued the Bellevue Education Association, alleging the teachers union is breaking its contract, which prohibits a work stoppage or strike.
The King County Superior Court disagreed. Late Thursday afternoon, the court denied the district’s request for a temporary restraining order. The order, if it had been approved, would have immediately required teachers to return to the classroom.
It’s unclear how many teachers participated in Thursday’s first day of in-person classes for second graders or offered live instruction online; neither the district nor the union provided figures. Four out of five teachers showed up to teach second grade at Newport Heights, along with special education instructors.
In its denial, the court said there was insufficient evidence to support the district’s claim that the union’s actions constituted a work stoppage. The decision cited the union’s willingness to provide some form of instruction to students. Another hearing on the case is set for Jan. 28.
The case could be a harbinger of things to come. Bellevue is the largest district in King County to welcome back general education students. More districts are expected to follow suit, including Seattle, which has announced plans to return some children to classrooms in March but is still bargaining with its teachers union over the return.
Bellevue argued the union violated the terms of the pandemic-specific agreement both parties negotiated over the summer and fall, which prohibits a work stoppage or slowdown. It has asked the court to enforce the terms of the contract and require the union to pay damages because the union’s actions necessitate hiring substitutes.
Bellevue is starting its reopening with kindergartners through second graders. The district is slowly introducing each grade to buildings, with second graders starting this week and the rest next week.
The students are split into morning and afternoon groups, with no lunch period and optional recess. Bellevue was also one of the first in the Seattle area to provide in-person learning to students with disabilities last fall.
In its court filing, Summit Law Group PLLC, the firm representing the district, wrote: “The Association and its members have created an emergency and have materially and substantially interfered with the District’s primary responsibility and obligation to ensure that all District students have the opportunity to attain their educational objectives.”
Allison Snow, union president, said the group had brought up a number of concerns about the district’s plan to expand in-person learning, and those issues still hadn’t been addressed or bargained by the time the district set a start date. One of them: The district hadn’t explained what would happen in the case of a substitute teacher shortage — a concern across thousands of districts in the country — which would require some of the union’s non-classroom staff to mix with multiple groups of students and take on different job roles.
Ivan Duran, the district’s superintendent, said the district has enough substitutes and district employees to continue moving ahead with the plan. He argued that conditions in buildings were safe, and that in-person instruction for 800 students had been going on since the start of the school year in September.
On Thursday, Duran walked through the mostly empty building at Newport Heights, peeking into classrooms. “This is emotional for me,” he said.
Arrows on the carpet hallways directed the flow of traffic. Students sat in desks spaced 6 feet apart. In one room staffed by a substitute teacher, Bethany Carbonetti, the kids watched a video describing the virus, and the new ground rules of schools: masking, social distancing. The class library in the corner was blocked off to avoid students from congregating.
The school’s principal, Jane Kopf Stover, walked alongside Duran. She’d woken up at 4 that morning and bought coffee for the whole staff.
“I’m taking this hour by hour,” she said.
The union and the district resumed talks Thursday afternoon. Snow said the union may take further action if an agreement isn’t reached by the end of the day on Friday.