Still locked in negotiations with its teachers union, Seattle Public Schools announced Monday that in-person instruction for pre-K through first-graders and some students with disabilities won’t begin until “at least” March 8. That’s a week after the March 1 start date originally announced by the district, Washington state’s largest.
It’s unclear how realistic the new timeline will be. The Seattle Education Association (SEA) union, which represents 6,000 of the district’s school employees, including teachers, has said from the outset of bargaining that the district’s target date to reopen was not guaranteed. In a Monday statement, SEA said the district had not yet addressed concerns from educators currently working in person who say the district doesn’t have enough necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and hasn’t followed safety protocols.
“We understand the desire to get students back to in-person learning — many of us are parents of SPS students too and as educators we miss seeing our students in person,” the statement said. “SEA’s bargaining team is working tirelessly to reach an agreement with SPS as quickly as we can, but we’re unwilling to cut corners on safety precautions in order to meet arbitrary deadlines.”
“We know that changes like these are difficult for families and students. We are committed to keeping you informed as new information becomes available,” the district said.
Seattle Public Schools officials sought to speed up the process by bringing a mediator into the discussion. But the union officials say they are “making progress” and don’t see a need to bring a mediator to the table.
The district’s reopening plan would bring pre-K through first-grade students back in person for two days a week, and students with disabilities four days a week. There would be 15 or fewer students per classroom.
The union has asked for specific language outlining safety measures. It wants contact tracing and flexible work accommodations, such as a remote-work option for teachers who haven’t been vaccinated, and access to rapid testing for the virus every week.
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.
The district is among the last school districts in the state and country to reopen to a broader set of students. According to a state survey, the district served 144 students in person during the week of Feb. 8, the most recent data available. The Bellevue School District, which recently opened its doors to young elementary school students after a public battle with its teachers union, served more than 14 times that number. The Kennewick School District in Southeast Washington served more than 16,000.