As other school districts open, Seattle remains split on returning to classrooms

As other school districts open, Seattle remains split on returning to classrooms

Seattle Public Schools, the first urban school system in the country to shut down due to the coronavirus, are now among the last to be open to a wider group of students than parents, administrators and teachers in a city divided along intricate fault lines .

At the negotiating table, the district and its teachers’ union share a plan to bring back certain students with disabilities and preschoolers through first graders, and have the district request mediation services with the state this week. And while many parents are deeply disappointed with the requirements of distance learning, a survey of more than 10,000 return eligible families shows they are arguing about sending their children back.

Earlier this month, Superintendent Denise Juneau stepped back a March 1 opening date to personally teach more than 11,000 students while negotiations continued with the Seattle Education Association, which represents 6,000 educators.

For the week of February 8, the last date for which data is nationwide, SPS said it was teaching 144 students in person. Compared to 275 other Washington state school districts averaging the number of students attending face to face, SPS – the largest district in the state with more than 50,000 students – ranks close to 200th, according to an analysis by the Seattle Times.

The most pressing issue with the reopening is better access to services for students with disabilities, many of whom have problems with remote learning environments. Janis White, president of the Seattle Special Education Parents Group, said some parents were told months ago that their children would be receiving personal services. About 2,500 of the district’s 8,000 disabled students could return in person. A district poll found that around 40% of these families said they would send their children back to the classroom, although about a quarter didn’t answer.

“We have a moral and ethical obligation, and we must be able to get there,” said Chandra Hampson, president of the Seattle School Board.

The district promised more information to parents next week, but those who want their children back in school this spring are tempering their expectations.

“I have to get away from the twists and turns sometimes so I don’t get stressed,” said Jenny Salomon, the parent of a third grader who she says struggles with distance learning. “There’s only so much I can take.”

Like its counterparts in other teacher union strongholds like Chicago, the union is pushing for specific language security measures. A new agreement will include contact tracing and flexible work accommodation, e.g. B. a remote working option for unvaccinated teachers and weekly access to rapid tests for the virus. On Tuesday, union president Jennifer Matter said the union was working on the district’s proposal for a hybrid schedule that would allow one group of teachers to teach in person and another to teach remotely.

Relations between management and labor were bumpy and pre-pandemic negotiations lengthy, but Seattle started the reopening conversation later than many other districts. In the fall, some King County’s school districts – including Bellevue – announced plans to return and then withdrew. Juneau said she was trying to avoid a situation where the district would have to be closed after reopening.

After a warning report from health officials and union pushback dismissed the district’s proposal to return to school buildings last fall, negotiations over the summer focused mainly on distance learning. The August agreement stipulated that negotiations would resume if the district made “changes to personal instruction.”

Matter said the union tried to address some health and safety-related issues outside of negotiations, but “we found that they were unwilling to engage in talks.”

“The SEA president’s comments do not exactly reflect our work with SEA,” district spokesman Tim Robinson wrote in an email on Friday. “SEA has seats in leadership groups and has been involved in district planning for personal learning since last spring.”

Although the district has requested mediation from the State Public Relations Commission (PERC), the parties have not yet scheduled a round of negotiations with a mediator. On Friday, Robinson said SEA had declined to support the mediation.

The matter denies this.

“SPS asked PERC for help because you should ask them. SEA has not asked PERC for help as we see progress in the negotiations. SPS has never asked SEA whether PERC could participate in a round of negotiations to say that we have refused is wrong, ”she wrote in a text.

A January poll of around half of SEA members found that 62% would not be willing to return to class until “educators have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated”. Thirty-seven percent of those polled don’t believe there should be a return to face-to-face classes this spring, regardless of vaccine.

“Trust me, I’m not a happy camper teaching on screens,” said Richard Katz, 60, a social science teacher at Roosevelt High School. “But I should have both shots in my arm. My wife, who is younger than me, has immunity problems. I am not very confident. I just think the district doesn’t know what they’re up against. “

The district and union also expressed concern about the racial differences reflected in surveys on return to school. This reflects a national trust gap in school reopening decisions among families of skin color whose lives have been disproportionately affected by the virus and racism in the school environment.

A survey of 10,000 families whose students are eligible to return to face-to-face tuition in Seattle shows only a six percentage point difference in the number of parents who personally opt for distance learning, 46% versus 40%.

However, when broken down by race, the survey shows a greater division. About 56% of white respondents chose in-person learning versus 38% for people of color and 33% of parents of male African American students. The people the district has vowed to serve in its five-year strategic plan.

However, higher numbers of color families also failed to respond to the survey, indicating the district’s longstanding challenges in reaching all of its families. Eight percent of white parents did not answer, compared with 19 percent of parents of color.

For this reason, volunteer parents in southeast Seattle, the most racially diverse area of ​​the city, have put together a complementary parenting survey that includes more detailed questions.

“This is the data that needs to be found and evaluated,” said O’Hara Jiménez, director of the Southeast Seattle area for citywide PTSA. “We have to ask not only whether parents want their children to return, but why or why not.”

The organization plans to submit the as-yet-unmerged survey results to the school district. Anecdotally, said Jiménez, parents in the region are also divided on the issue of reopening. She meets weekly with school board members Brandon Hersey and other parents in South Seattle on the fair opening of schools.

“The only concern is that parents, guardians and students simply don’t have the information they need to make these decisions,” she said.

It seems like too little and too much information about the school reopening is available at the same time, said Veena Prasad, a parent with twins visiting Pathfinder K-8 in West Seattle.

“It’s a mountain of information that you can sometimes wade through. People keep saying that the virus doesn’t have a big impact on young children, ”Prasad said. But the notice from the district asking her if she would like her children to return in person felt poorly detailed and surprised her.

“To be honest, I’m confused every step of the way,” said Prasad. “I don’t know what is the safest decision for us.”

She couldn’t get any more information about the plan from people she’d spoken to at her school. Due to the news of the new variations and the fact that if their children choose to study in person, their children may not get the same teacher, she decided to only tag remotely.

“It’s a tough decision,” said Prasad. “I think the district is trying its best. I know many parents want to send their children back for mental health and connection reasons. I agree that the district needs to make plans to reopen, but I would only send my children back in person if it was a solid plan. “

This story was updated on February 19 to reflect new comments from the district and teachers’ union about negotiations.