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Bellevue School District and teachers union reach in-person learning deal, but tensions linger

caption: General school assistant Vicki Premo, right, checks in second-grade student Cora on Thursday, January 21, 2021, as second-grade students returned to in-person learning at Somerset Elementary School in Bellevue.
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General school assistant Vicki Premo, right, checks in second-grade student Cora on Thursday, January 21, 2021, as second-grade students returned to in-person learning at Somerset Elementary School in Bellevue.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Some students in Bellevue School District were back in the classroom Tuesday after a tense debate about reopening the district's schools.

The district and the Bellevue Education Association reached an agreement regarding in-person learning late Monday night that allows students in kindergarten through second grade to attend school in-person for the first time since last March, although on a slightly longer time frame.

The district’s previous plan for kindergarten through second grade stalled last week after the union refused to come back to the buildings, citing Covid safety concerns. The union asked the district to pause its reopening plan until school staff could get vaccinated, which could take months under the current state vaccine timeline.

Bellevue Schools refused to change its plans, and reopened to second-graders as scheduled last week by staffing classrooms with substitute teachers.

The district then sued the union for what it called an "illegal strike" or work slow-down. Many educators canceled live, online classes for two days to protest the district's intransigence.

A King County Superior Court ex-parte commissioner on Friday rejected the district's request for a restraining order against the union to return staff to buildings or to live, online instruction.

After days of intense negotiations, the union and district on Monday reached a tentative agreement that union members "barely passed" after hours of debate, said Bellevue Education Association President Allison Snow.

The deal brings students back on a more gradual schedule: First-graders can return on February 8 for two days of in-person classes. Kindergarteners may return on February 11 for two days. About 60% of K-2 families had opted for their children to attend school in a hybrid model, partly in-person, partly online - rather than remain entirely online.

The agreement also gives school staff more voice in further reopening decisions through teams that will evaluate health and safety issues.

Still, Snow said, it was "a painful compromise."

"In this agreement, the district has failed to address our central concern of forcing staff back to buildings before they have access to a vaccine, and ignored once again our call to pause district plans until more provisions can be put into place," Snow said in a letter to union members Tuesday.

"By and large, our BIPOC members feel abandoned and betrayed by this decision," Snow said in an interview.

In Bellevue Schools, staff who are Black, Indigenous or people of color are more likely to be called back to buildings, in part due to seniority, Snow said — an issue compounded by the disproportionate impact Covid has had on many communities of color.

"Our membership, with this agreement, has gotten a good enough deal to decide they can live with it," Snow said. But she said the deal has "left many people feeling that this compromise comes very unfairly and unjustly on the shoulders of those who most needed us to protect them."

Bellevue Schools Superintendent Ivan Duran said he trusts that the plan will help calm the fears of staff concerned about safety.

"I think that having the safety protocols and risk mitigation strategies are going to be essential for us to alleviate the concerns and worries that people have," Duran said.

"I believe we came up with something that really addressed the needs and concerns that we heard from our a way to better serve our students in person," he said.

Duran said he looks forward to finding ways to bring students in grades 3 through 12 back to campuses when possible. The agreement reached Monday calls for further negotiations before older students can return to buildings, with input from staff already on-site.

Emotions have run high on both sides of the issue in Bellevue, with some parents in favor of reopening accusing teachers of being "lazy" and preferring the comforts of online teaching from home, and other parents accusing the district of using divisive rhetoric that pits parents against school staff.

In Snow's letter to union membership, she said the district should consider itself "on notice."

"You chose to sow division, hate, and distrust," Snow said of the district. "And for what? At what cost? We will no longer tolerate such leadership at the head of our nation, and we will not tolerate it from you," Snow wrote.

Superintendent Duran said he had not read the letter, but that he could speak to the message.

"I think both parties can look to see things that we did and think about, what are some of those actions that we need to consider?" Duran said. "But more importantly, we have to really move forward and put our eyes on what we need to do to unite for our students at this time."

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