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Seattle Schools says many 'essential' staff will be called back to classrooms in March

caption: The John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence, Seattle Public School headquarters, on Feb. 27, 2021.
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The John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence, Seattle Public School headquarters, on Feb. 27, 2021.
KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld

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

This is before the district reaches a reopening agreement with Seattle Education Association.

In a controversial move, the School Board voted Thursday to classify staff members who serve some of the highest-needs students with disabilities, as well as those in the district’s preschool and Head Start programs, as "essential."

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

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

The Seattle Education Association responded swiftly and with anger. SEA said this move violates its memorandum of understanding with the district because it would change staff working conditions, and that the district has not yet satisfied union concerns regarding health and safety precautions to prevent coronavirus transmission.

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

In taking the aggressive step, the district exercised a clause in its MOU with the union that allows it to deem certain staff as responsible for “essential” work “that is required to maintain basic operations of the district, or on-site work critical to meet an essential student or business need.”

Superintendent Denise Juneau, in a written statement, said “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.”

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

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

The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction also set a March 1 deadline for districts to submit their reopening plans in order to guarantee access to federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds. Seattle stands to receive $41 million.

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

Seattle, the state’s largest district, is also one of the last districts in the state to return to in-person learning at any significant scale. The latest negotiations over how and when to expand in-person learning began in January, with union concerns hinging 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 not currently eligible for Covid vaccination, because Washington gave lower priority to educators than many other states. School staff age 50 and older will be eligible in the next vaccine phase, but younger staff members are several phases away from vaccine eligibility.

Neither does receiving an “essential” designation by the district give staff automatic Covid vaccination priority.

The union holds that the memorandum of understanding allows the district to assign special education staff to work with students one-on-one, and only after an evaluation process to determine that in-person services are critical for the student to make educational progress. Currently, 148 students are receiving in-person special education services in the district, that's fewer than 2% of all special education students.

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

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

Union leaders called the district’s move a “union-busting tactic” and said it is considering filing an unfair labor practice charge.

Concie Pedroza, the district’s chief of student supports services, said that the district's position is that the "essential" designation for staff enables the district to assign them work it considers critical.

Pedroza pointed to other staff the district has classified as “essential,” including staff in the admissions office back in September, “as we were learning that bilingual families were really struggling with access to remote.” Nutrition, custodial, and payroll staff have also been deemed “essential,” Pedroza said, and are working in-person.

The district’s move drew harsh criticism from many union members, including many who were notified Friday that they may be required to return to buildings in just over a week. The district estimated about 350 staff will be deemed “essential” to serve an estimated 600 special education students whose parents have indicated they are interested in returning. Many preschool staff members and students would also return.

“It’s extremely alarming," said a developmental preschool instructional assistant who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

“Employees in intensive pathways cannot do their jobs without being very close to their students ... for long periods of time, holding hands to guide them, toileting them, helping them eat, and helping them learn through significant hand-over-hand instruction,” she said.

Although students learning in-person will be required to wear masks if possible, some students with disabilities will be allowed to go maskless if they do not tolerate them or cannot safely wear them, Pedroza said. Staff slated to return to buildings said they anticipate many of the students they serve will not be masked for that reason.

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

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

“The district is not ready. This is not going to work,” Reibin Evans said. Her PPE box is understocked, she said. “I had to go into the cafeteria the other day to get gloves."

Reibin Evans said she does not trust that the district can successfully scale up services and protect students and staff if it cannot do so for the four dozen or so staff members she estimates are already serving students in-person.

The district insists that it is ready.

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

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

“We’re coming up on one year of being remote, and so many families are truly in crisis at this point,” White said. “Their students with disabilities are not capable of learning through the remote learning process.”

Still, White said, she finds disconcerting word from some staff currently serving students in buildings that they have not had the PPE they need and that communications about safety measures were inadequate. She worries that the district’s move to reopen schools before an agreement is reached with the union could do more harm than good.

“It does seem to me that everybody is going to be better served if there's a collaborative process, with transparency, and that there's an agreement before students go back,” White said.

“My fear with all of what's happening now is that it's going to turn into a distraction, potentially, and delay getting services to kids who desperately need them.”

The district said its next step will be determining which eligible families want to return and assigning staff accordingly. Students will begin returning in phases March 11 following three days of staff in-person training, the district said, beginning with children in preschool and Head Start 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 it has yet to agree with the union on a reopening plan for any other students in grades K-12.

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