A labor dispute could hold up the Monday opening of five emergency child care sites meant to serve children of hundreds of first responders and health care workers in a partnership between Seattle and the school district.

While Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan promised Thursday that more emergency child care classrooms will open, it’s unclear when.

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) initially agreed to use its own employees to staff child care classrooms hosted at its schools closest to hospitals. The district reversed course Thursday morning following pushback from its teachers union, the Seattle Education Association.

“We understand that educators and child care workers are two separate professions, and that the required skillsets are different,” schools chief Denise Juneau wrote in an email to staff Thursday morning. “That has been our stance from the beginning of the Governor’s directive” for districts to provide child care for first responders and medical workers while they are closed. “We will no longer be asking our SPS educators to sign up to provide child care. We want you to focus on providing our students with continuous learning in creative ways.”

As recently as March 26, district leadership proposed an arrangement with the city that would have provided more than a dozen school district employees for each site, according to documents a source familiar with the situation shared with The Seattle Times.

Juneau said that the district would still be willing to provide the space, meals and cleaning in its buildings for child care. SPS now says it wants that money to go to existing child care providers who would be better equipped to handle the job.


Durkan’s statement said the city would pursue its plans with nonprofit providers, but it’s unclear whether they would still be hosted on district property. The city currently funds about 34 child care classrooms, including an additional nine classrooms opening next week.

Outside Seattle, many school districts are relying on outside child care providers or asking employees to volunteer. None said they were receiving any help from their cities or counties. They’re paying for it through their existing funding and hoping the rest will be covered by the state. “We’re hoping that because the governor ordered us to provide the service that we’ll get reimbursed for doing so,” said Dan Voelpel, a spokesman for Tacoma Public Schools. “But who really knows.”

Tacoma, Shoreline and Edmonds school districts are running their child care centers without teachers. Highline is staffing its program on a voluntary basis.

“Paraeducators provide the care, administrators are overseeing it, and there are some support staff, such as custodians and office assistants, on site,” said Catherine Carbone Rogers, a Highline spokeswoman.

In Seattle, the holdup marked the latest turn in a dispute between the district and city and King County officials over the task of establishing emergency child care sites for first responders and medical workers as they attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

As city and county officials pressured the district to move on Gov. Jay Inslee’s order, the district announced it had opened space in about a dozen school buildings where outside providers such as Boys & Girls Club and Launch operate child care sites. That’s the way many other surrounding school districts have approached Inslee’s call for districts to provide child care.


The district said it would work on getting more sites up and running. Then late last week, the city said it would kick in money to create dozens of new emergency child care classrooms housed at schools nearest to hospitals. Durkan said she would use emergency power to repurpose money from the city’s education levy to help fund the sites.

Then the labor dispute arose.

On Tuesday evening, the district sent an email to employees calling for volunteers to sign up to work at the child care classrooms in shifts. On Wednesday, the district began assigning some employees to work shifts.

A few hours later, just after midnight, the union’s leadership issued a response flatly rejecting the plan, and asked its members to not sign up.

“We also have a responsibility to ensure our members’ safety and rights are protected, especially in such an unprecedented and dangerous situation,” the email read. “No member should be compelled to provide this care.”

Teachers, in criticizing the district, pointed to their simultaneous requirement from the state to provide instruction to students during the closure. An agreement between the district and union requires teachers to check in with families twice a week and continue providing education.

In Seattle, some teachers see themselves as ill-prepared for taking the place of child care workers.


“When educators say we are not child care providers we are not saying we are better than that,” said Shraddha Shirude, a teacher at Garfield High School. “We are saying we do not have the training and passion for a job that requires a professional understanding of child development in ways we do not have.”

The union’s response also included a March 31 proposal it shared with the district calling for child care work to be volunteer-based rather than compulsory, to include hazard pay and protective equipment.

The district said it learned from the city last week that it had to provide its own employees to staff the sites or risk losing funding for about 80 Pre-K staff, whose salaries are paid through the city’s $600 million-plus education levy. That levy pays for the city’s universal preschool program, which is coordinated through several contractors including SPS.

It’s unclear how exactly the district came to this conclusion. A district spokesman declined to provide more information.

Seattle Times staff reporters Katherine Long and Anne Hillman contributed to this story.