Seattle schools say many ‘essential’ staff will be called back to classrooms in March

Seattle Public Schools has notified hundreds of teachers and other school staff that they may be among those called back to buildings beginning March 8 to conduct in-person classes.

That’s before the district reached a reopening agreement with the Seattle Education Association.

In a controversial decision, the school board voted Thursday to classify staff members who serve some of the most needy students with disabilities, as well as those in the district’s preschool and Head Start programs, as “essential.”

This “essential” designation allows the district to require staff to return to the school building for their work, as the district has already done with custodians, admissions staff and others.

That would not apply to kindergarten or first-grade general education teachers, who the district said would return to classrooms this spring. The only dissenting vote came from council director Brandon Hersey, who is a teacher in another district.

The Seattle Education Association reacted quickly and angrily. SEA said the move violated its memorandum of understanding with the district because it would change working conditions for staff and the district had yet to address union concerns about health and safety precautions to prevent transmission. of the coronavirus.

“There is nothing the District can do more to undermine the process and cause irreparable harm to the negotiations than to take this approach in bad faith,” SEA President Jennifer Matter told the leaders of the district and school board in a scathing letter.

In taking the aggressive step, the district has exercised a clause in its memorandum of understanding with the union that allows it to consider certain staff members responsible for “essential” work “that is necessary to maintain the basic operations of the district, or essential on-site work to meet an essential need for a student or business.

Superintendent Denise Juneau, in a written statement, said: “Working with our partner union, SEA, will continue, but as we have not yet reached an agreement, we must begin to take the necessary steps to bring educators back. for our students.”

“I applaud the board’s courageous action to designate these educational services as essential,” Juneau said.

Along with pressure from many parents to reopen, the district is under federal investigation for its failure to provide many students with their legally authorized special education services during the pandemic.

The state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has also set March 1 as the deadline for districts to submit reopening plans to ensure access to federal emergency relief funds for elementary schools and schools. secondary. Seattle is expected to receive $41 million.

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, President Joe Biden and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee have all emphasized that schools can and should reopen as soon as possible, and that the risks are low if carefully mitigated through measures such as universal mask-wearing. and social distancing.

Seattle, the largest district in the state, is also one of the last districts in the state to return to in-person learning on a significant scale. The final negotiations over how and when to expand in-person learning began in January, with union concerns centering primarily on whether the district has put in place sufficient health and safety precautions, including increased ventilation in classrooms and PPE for staff.

Most school staff are currently ineligible for the Covid vaccination because Washington has given educators a lower priority than many other states. School staff aged 50 and over will be eligible for the next phase of vaccination, but younger staff members are several phases away from vaccine eligibility.

Receiving an “essential” designation by the district also does not prioritize staff for automatic Covid vaccination.

The union argues that the memorandum of understanding allows the district to assign special education staff to work with students individually, and only after an evaluation process to determine that in-person services are essential for the student progresses in his studies. Currently, 148 students receive in-person special education services in the district, less than 2% of all special education students.

The district’s plan would remove that barrier to assessment for some special education students and require staff to work in classes of up to 15 students, up to five days a week.

“The ‘essential’ task provision of the MOU was never intended to allow the Superintendent to unilaterally impose new terms and conditions of employment without negotiation, as clearly set forth in the current MOU,” wrote the SEA leaders in an email to members and the district community.

Union leaders called the district’s decision “union busting” and said they were considering filing an unfair labor practice lawsuit.

Concie Pedroza, chief of student support services for the district, said the district’s position is that designating staff “essential” allows the district to assign them work it deems essential.

Pedroza pointed to other staff the district categorized as “essential,” including staff in the admissions office in September, “as we were learning that bilingual families were having a really hard time accessing remotely.” Nutrition, custodial and payroll staff have also been deemed “essential,” Pedroza said, and are working in person.

The district’s decision drew heavy criticism from many union members, many of whom were told on Friday they could be required to return to the buildings in just over a week. The district estimates that about 350 staff members will be deemed “essential” to serve about 600 special education students whose parents have indicated they want to return. Many preschool staff and students would also return.

“It’s extremely alarming,” said a developing preschool assistant who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.

“Intensive track employees cannot do their jobs without being very close to their students…for long periods of time, holding hands to guide them, wash them, help them eat, and help them learn through hands-on instruction important. ,” she said.

Although students learning in person will be required to wear masks if possible, some students with disabilities will be allowed to go without masks if they cannot tolerate them or cannot safely wear them, Pedroza said. Staff due to return to buildings said they anticipated many students they served would not be masked for this reason.

According to district policy, if students cannot wear masks, “additional safeguards will be put in place to protect students and staff.”

Even so, Lisa Reibin Evans, a paraeducator who has been working one-on-one with preschool students at North Beach Elementary School since January, said she has been waiting for a month to receive the KN95 masks promised by the district. Eventually, she says, she got some from a colleague.

“The neighborhood is not ready. It won’t work,” Reibin Evans said. Her box of PPE is understocked, she said. “I had to go to the cafeteria the other day to get some gloves.”

Reibin Evans said she doesn’t believe the district can succeed in expanding services and protecting students and staff if it can’t do so for the approximately four dozen staff members she says serve. already the students in person.

The district insists it is ready.

“The SPS has prepared school buildings for the return of in-person instruction, with all necessary safety equipment, ventilation improvements, social distancing, transportation and meal services,” the district said in a statement. a written statement.

Janis White, president of Seattle Special Education PTSA, called the whole situation “tragic”.

“We’re approaching a year of being apart, and so many families are really in crisis at this point,” White said. “Their students with disabilities are not able to learn through the distance learning process.”

Still, White said she finds disconcerting reports from some staff who currently serve students in buildings that they haven’t had the PPE they need and that communications about the measures security were inadequate. She worries that the district’s decision to reopen schools before a deal is reached with the union will do more harm than good.

“It seems to me that everyone will be better served if there is a collaborative process, with transparency, and there is an agreement before the students return,” White said.

“My fear with everything that’s happening now is that it’s turning into a distraction, potentially, and delaying getting services for kids who desperately need them.”

The district said its next step would be to determine which eligible families want to return and assign staff accordingly. Students will begin returning in phases March 11 after three days of in-person staff training, the district said, beginning with preschool and Head Start children and some elementary students who receive special education services.

The district has not yet announced return dates for other special education students in intensive pathways. And he has yet to agree with the union on a reopening plan for all other K-12 students.

Michelle J. Kelley