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Bellevue says it will use non-union staff to reopen schools as labor conflict intensifies

caption: Second-grade student Nelly, second from left, watches a video about social distancing and other safety precautions along with her classmates on Thursday, January 21, 2021, as second-grade students returned to in-person learning at Somerset Elementary School in Bellevue.
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1 of 2 Second-grade student Nelly, second from left, watches a video about social distancing and other safety precautions along with her classmates on Thursday, January 21, 2021, as second-grade students returned to in-person learning at Somerset Elementary School in Bellevue.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Bellevue School District plans to reopen buildings to second graders Thursday despite a vote by teachers and other school staff to stay home due to Covid safety concerns.

Updated on 1/21/21 3:30 p.m. PT

The district has taken the Bellevue Education Association to court, seeking an injunction to force staff back to buildings. The two sides appeared before a King County Superior Court commissioner at 2 p.m.

In court documents, the district called the union's action an illegal strike or work slow-down "that is detrimental to the District's operations and will harm the education of its students."

Union president Allison Snow said she "never, ever would have imagined that our district leaders would have taken such a positional approach to problem-solving."

“Many families that we surveyed want the in-person services,” said Superintendent Ivan Duran in an interview. “We are opening.”

The district will backfill the positions of union members who do not report to buildings as ordered, he said.

“We have coverage at every one of our buildings, from substitutes to some of our administrators, to other staff members that will be there to support our students and families,” Duran said.

“We're not breaking the agreement that we made with this association. We're not breaking our promise to our second grade students and families,” Duran said.

The district has already been serving hundreds of students in buildings, Duran said, and planned to expand in-person classes first to more than 775 second-graders Thursday, then first-graders and kindergarteners over the next two weeks.

That plan did not sit well with the Bellevue Education Association, which voted in a general membership Tuesday night not to return more staff to buildings until they can be vaccinated. The action would not affect staff already working in buildings, the union said.

Community Covid transmission rates are too high to feel safe expanding face-to-face instruction, said BEA President Allison Snow, especially given what she said are unresolved safety questions regarding the district’s plan.

“A lot of those things were identified early on [in bargaining] as still needing to be negotiated,” Snow said. “We do feel that it's a reasonable request to ask the district to pause expansion of services until those requests are clearly negotiated.”

In a Wednesday email to families, however, the district said its protocols have been shown to work.

“Our buildings are ready. We have a plan in place that has proven to be effective. Since September, we have served almost 800 students in person, with zero in-building Covid-19 transmission,” the email said.

Snow got an email indicating the superintendent’s plan to reopen — with or without union members — in the middle of a Wednesday bargaining session, she said.

“I honestly couldn't believe it,” Snow said. “I've never seen behavior like that from leaders in the Bellevue School District and certainly would not have expected that when bargaining was happening. It just feels so out of good-faith behavior.”

The labor conflict is one of the most significant statewide during the pandemic, said officials at the Washington Education Association. In November, staff in Monroe School District refused to return to buildings as the district attempted to bring back first-graders while Covid case counts skyrocketed.

District officials in Monroe threatened staff who did not return with potential termination, but relented shortly thereafter and halted the expansion of in-person learning.

For Gwen Schweitzer, whose daughter attends public school in Bellevue, in-person learning is appealing.

"I have a first-grader who is behind her grade level and would benefit from additional instruction," Schweitzer said in an email.

“I fully support opening schools safely, but teachers and staff need to agree it is safe. Otherwise what are we teaching our children about caring, power, and privilege?” Schweitzer said.

Other parents are fed up with teachers' resistance to returning to the classroom. Michelle Flores, who has seven children in Bellevue schools, said that it's incredibly frustrating to see schools elsewhere in session while Bellevue students have had to stay home for nearly a year.

"It's just really sad how if you have a lot of money, and you could afford private school, it has gone on [in person] since September, from what I'm hearing," Flores said.

In Louisiana, she said, where her family lived until several years ago, many students are attending school in person, and "things have been fine. I haven't heard of anything closing down because of anything spreading from the kids."

Along with refusing to go back to buildings, the union voted to stop live online instruction for all students Thursday and Friday in protest if the district does not back down from reopening.

“This news is incredibly frustrating, as it only serves to punish our students by taking away their daily routines during these already challenging times,” the district said in its email to families.

The union has called a general membership meeting on Friday to discuss next steps if the reopening plans have not been halted.

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