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caption: The empty hallway at Garfield High School in Seattle's Central District.
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The empty hallway at Garfield High School in Seattle's Central District.

Teachers union says Seattle Public Schools' fall plans are premature and not negotiated

As tensions mount among educators over potential Covid-19 exposure in the classroom this fall, Seattle Education Association is accusing the district of announcing reopening plans before discussing them with the union.

In a sharply-worded letter to Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau on Saturday, the Seattle Education Association -- the teachers union -- called off the collaborative phase of negotiations and moved to the more adversarial stage.

“It is clear that the district is engaged in positional bargaining and has already made decisions about the reopening of schools before the joint process has had an opportunity to begin to address the numerous issues and concerns of educators in ensuring the health and safety of our community,” the letter read.

The state education chief has called on districts to plan to reopen to the safest extent possible this fall after K-12 schools were closed mid-March due to the coronavirus.

On June 30, district officials presented a plan to the school board: Contingent on public health restrictions, school would be held in-person at least two days a week starting this fall, with the rest of the week being online. Families who want to keep students home were promised an entirely-online option.

But Jennifer Matter, the Seattle teachers union president, said in an interview that the district had not first negotiated the plan with the union.

"It was, in my mind, misleading to be putting that out there so quickly when they had not yet addressed the health and safety concerns of that model," Matter said, adding that announcing a plan so early did not take into account the sharp rise in cases of Covid-19 in recent weeks.

The union also took issue with the district using a consulting firm, Attuned Education Partners, rather than district educators trained in online learning, to develop its school-restart strategy. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding the consultants' work.

The last straw for the union, Matter said, came on Friday, when the district's chief of schools, Wyeth Jessee, told school principals in an email that the district had decided to hold pre-K and kindergarten classes in-person four or five days a week next school year.

That announcement, SEA wrote in its letter to Superintendent Juneau, “clearly shows decisions have already been made on in-person learning and the number of days students will be in buildings,” which the union had expected to negotiate with the district.

“We are requesting the district’s reopening plan and decisions on models so we can begin traditional negotiations on the impact and implementation of the district’s chosen model for opening of schools in the fall,” the union wrote.

Union members widely applauded the letter, which SEA posted on Facebook.

Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Tim Robinson said no one from the district was available to comment, but sent a written statement that said the district will follow all public health guidelines in its reopening plans.

"Seattle Public Schools continues to bargain in good faith with the Seattle Education Association the impact of any changed working conditions, as we focus on the goal of providing what is best for our students and staff in the coming school year. We appreciate the input SEA has provided since we began developing our fall re-entry plans in May."

The school board is scheduled to vote on a final school restart plan in a special meeting August 12.

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