After months of negotiations, the union representing 7,000 Seattle Public Schools employees ratified an agreement to bring elementary students back into the classroom for in-person instruction on April 5.
The agreement makes official a return to school buildings for the district, which is among the last in the nation to return students to classrooms on a broader scale. This week, the union representing the district’s school employees, the Seattle Education Association, voted to ratify the contract — with 82% of members approving — making the deal official for students enrolled in pre-K through fifth grade.
“We listened to our community and brought concerns we heard from them to the bargaining table,” said SEA President Jennifer Matter in a statement Friday morning. “We are grateful for our community members’ collaboration, and for our bargaining team’s dedication to making this happen.”
The parents of about 58% of SPS students indicated in a districtwide survey this week that they plan to return their children to school for hybrid instruction, a district spokesperson said. The district received responses from about 83% of its currently enrolled students.
Under the agreement, elementary school students and secondary students with disabilities would return to buildings on April 5 — Gov. Jay Inslee’s deadline for districts to offer in-person instruction for young students. Some elementary students receiving special education services would return on March 29. Students would attend schools four days per week on half-day schedules for just under three hours, with some attending in the morning and others in the afternoon.
The agreement also includes a commitment to keep as many students as possible with their current classroom educator and maintain 6-foot physical distancing. The agreement was negotiated before Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement Thursday that reduced the distancing requirement from 6 to 3 feet.
Expanded leave and accommodations for educators and several layers of safety protocols are included in the agreement as well. Under the agreement, the district must maintain at least 30 days’ worth of PPE for staff and students. Staff members who haven’t been fully vaccinated can request to work remotely until they’ve been able to do so. The district cannot compel union members to get vaccinated. Educators who will lose access to child care, or whose child care provider isn’t offering in-person services during the pandemic, can request remote work as an accommodation.
More complications remain: The district announced last week that it would not be able to guarantee yellow bus transportation for all families who request it due to a school-bus driver shortage with its primary contractor, First Student. On Wednesday, the School Board approved a measure to change elementary school start times in an effort to allow bus drivers to run more than one route in the morning and afternoon, but it’s unclear how many more students will be eligible.
“We understand that no agreement is perfect, and no agreement will address or solve the historical issues and inequities we face in our schools,” said SEA Vice President Uti Hawkins in the statement. “Bargaining and ratifying a TA [tentative agreement] is just one part of our larger organizing efforts to fight for the schools we all deserve.”
The district and union are still negotiating a return for middle and high school students. Their focus, according to the statement, is to create a model that “minimizes the disruption to class schedules, is sustainable, meets social-emotional and academic needs of all students (in-person and remote), centers equity, and also meets the requirements of the Governor’s return-to-classrooms proclamation.”
Inslee’s deadline for schools to offer in-person learning to secondary students is April 19.