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caption: Seattle Public School Superintendent Denise Juneau listens during a public meeting to address concerns about abusive teachers within the Seattle Public School system on Thursday, February 13, 2020, at the Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center at Garfield High School in Seattle.
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Seattle Public School Superintendent Denise Juneau listens during a public meeting to address concerns about abusive teachers within the Seattle Public School system on Thursday, February 13, 2020, at the Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center at Garfield High School in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Seattle Schools scraps plan to draft educators for emergency child care services

Seattle Public Schools had plans to draft district staff to work at five new child care sites for the children of first responders.

But the district reversed course after educators and their union representatives pushed back.

Seattle Public Schools had first asked staff on Tuesday to volunteer for 150 positions at the emergency child care sites, which were scheduled to open Monday. They were asked to act mostly as child care providers, as well as other support staff.

In an email sent Wednesday night to many special education instructional assistants, elementary specialist teachers, librarians, and other employees, human resources chief Clover Codd said that the district had not gotten enough child care volunteers, and would thus be assigning staff to the positions.

“During this time, you are considered an ‘essential employee',” Codd wrote.

“You are either an [full-time] staff member being paid, or you are a substitute being paid at this time. Therefore, you are being asked to provide direct services on-site to meet the District’s need of providing childcare to children (grades K-5) at the five locations.”

The email went out at the same time the Seattle Education Association, the teachers’ union, was holding a meeting of building representatives. The district’s plan to conscript educators was immediately discussed and, in a vote, rejected by the representative assembly “overwhelmingly,” an SEA statement said.

“SEA recognizes the sacrifice our first responders are making for the greater community during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that there is a need for childcare to be provided for these essential workers and their children,” SEA spokesperson Linda Mullen told KUOW in an email.

However, union leaders said, such work should be voluntary, not compelled, and must be bargained for -- including measures to ensure safety precautions, additional pay to reflect the dangerous nature of child care work during a pandemic, and working hours.

The district had created two shifts per day: an early shift beginning at 6 a.m., and a late shift ending at 8 p.m.

The union proposed the alternative of staffing the centers with the region’s many unionized child care providers, who have lost their jobs as daycares have shut down during the pandemic.

Thursday morning, the district reversed course. “We will no longer be asking our SPS educators to sign up to provide childcare,” Superintendent Denise Juneau said in an email to staff.

“We understand that educators and childcare workers are two separate professions, and that the required skillsets are different,” Juneau wrote, adding that that had been the district’s stance ever since Gov. Jay Inslee called on school districts to help provide child care during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Last week we learned that the City of Seattle made it a requirement that in order to keep our PreK City levy funding, the district must provide childcare using SPS educational staff,” Juneau said.

The mayor’s office contradicted that claim.

“We did not threaten to pull money from the district,” said Chelsea Kellogg, a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan.

Neither did the city require that the district use its educators as child care providers, Kellogg said. “How they want to staff the child care is completely up to them,” she said.

Kellogg said levy funding for early childhood education was temporarily halted after the district closed all of its buildings in step with statewide school closures. The city was then required by law to stop funding the district’s Seattle Preschool Program sites, Kellogg said.

After Mayor Durkan declared a Civil Emergency in Seattle March 3, Kellogg said, the mayor was able to legally redirect levy dollars for the Seattle Preschool Program to emergency child care sites.

“The City’s interest is ensuring essential workers have child care,” Mayor Durkan said in a written statement Thursday.

“Despite being asked by Governor Inslee to prioritize this action, the school district was unable to fund preschool or child care options. As a result, the City and County have stepped up to provide these resources as a bridge,” the mayor wrote, referring to the levy dollars.

With the Seattle Public Schools' staffing strategy for the child care sites jettisoned, the plan to open next week is on hold, said district spokesperson Tim Robinson.

He said the district has referred the 35 families who had signed up for care at the five new sites to its other child care facilities.

“The City would welcome much needed action for more predictable and long term services from Seattle Public Schools,” Durkan said.

This is just the latest episode of conflict between the mayor and superintendent over the district’s role as a child care provider during the pandemic.

Two weeks ago, Mayor Durkan and County Executive Dow Constantine exchanged tart emails with Superintendent Juneau and Seattle School Board President Zachary DeWolf, in which Durkan and Constantine accused the district of not doing enough to provide daycare to essential workers.

“No one can stand on the sidelines,” they told the district officials.

Juneau and DeWolf announced 12 child care sites for essential workers the next day, and chided Durkan and Constantine for their tone.

“For you to even hint that our staff and school board is not pulling our weight during this time of crisis is nonsense, and frankly, we expect better leadership from both of you,” the district leaders wrote.

There are currently 15 child care sites open in district buildings, but run by outside organizations, for the preschool and school-age children of essential workers, and low-income children. Nine of those sites have spaces available for new children according to the district website.

In contrast, the five newly-announced sites were to be opened in district classrooms, operated and staffed entirely by the district.