In a push to offer more in-person schooling to students with disabilities and preschoolers, Seattle Public Schools has labeled about 700 educators “essential,” in an attempt to fast-track their return to the classroom amid heated negotiations over reopening with its 6,000-member educators union.

The Seattle Education Association union (SEA) said the move was an attempt to force educators back before bargaining had finished. “We are considering all legal avenues, including potentially filing an Unfair Labor Practice,” the union said in a statement.

On Friday evening, the district announced that the 700 educators who work with disabled children and preschoolers received notice to return to school by March 8 for training, with classes resuming for their students by March 11. At least 2,500 students receiving special education services — mainly those with severe to moderate cognitive and physical disabilities — qualify for in-person instruction under the district’s plan to reopen schools.

Though a small number of educators are already working on-site at schools, the current agreement with the union requires bargaining before “making changes to in-person instruction.” But in its move, the district exercised a provision in that agreement that allows the superintendent to determine “on-site work critical to meet an essential student or business need.” The Seattle School Board authorized the action Thursday night.

“Working with our partner union, SEA, will continue, but because we haven’t reached an agreement yet, we have to begin to take the steps to bring educators back for our students,” Superintendent Denise Juneau said in a statement Friday. “I applaud the board’s courageous action to designate as essential these instructional services for some of our special education students and our youngest learners in preschool and Head Start.”

The Friday move is likely to add another layer of intensity to the discussions. The plan currently under negotiation calls for some students with disabilities and preschoolers through first graders to return to buildings. Those students make up about 20% of the district’s 50,000-plus enrollment.


“We are deeply disappointed that despite being at the bargaining table over precisely this topic, SEA was not provided advance notice or an opportunity to partner around what the new reopening plan entails,” the union said in its Friday statement. “Additional special education staff are not in buildings right now precisely because the district has failed to provide adequate COVID protections for those few staff and students already receiving in-person instruction.”

It’s unclear what the consequence would be if educators refused to return, as has been in the case some districts. “Right now, we haven’t determined the next step,” said Concie Pedroza, the district’s chief of student supports. “We’re hopeful our teachers will come into work.”

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, with or without vaccinations.

An email sent to employees Friday evening said those “who have health conditions, as defined by CDC, that lead to increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and have documentation from a medical professional, will have the opportunity to request remote accommodations or an alternative assignment.”

A recent, limited survey of families of about 10,000 students eligible for in-person instruction under the district’s reopening proposal showed a split among those ready to send their kids back into school buildings. Among parents of students with disabilities, 40% said they preferred in-person schooling, while 35% opted for remote. Twenty-three percent did not respond.

Seattle Public Schools is among the last major urban districts in the country to reopen to a broader set of students, including to students with disabilities. Some families have been waiting months for services that can’t be delivered remotely, advocates say.