The Bellevue School District will bring first-graders and kindergartners back for in-person learning in February, a couple of weeks later than originally planned.
The district had been in a standoff with the Bellevue Education Association, but the two sides have reached an agreement that was narrowly approved by union members.
Teachers unions across the region have been trying to hammer out agreements to protect staff health and safety amid pressure from families for students to come to school in person. Bellevue’s situation has been one of the most contentious. The educators wanted the district to pause expansion of in-person learning until they had full access to the coronavirus vaccine. When the district didn’t do that, the educators staged a protest, and the district took them to court for a temporary injunction, which was denied.
“I would say there’s still an extreme level of distrust,” said Allison Snow, president of the Bellevue Education Association. “Although this agreement goes a long way toward addressing concerns, it still leaves a lot of the power in the hands of district leaders, who have clearly shown in past weeks that we can’t fully trust them.”
Superintendent Ivan Duran acknowledged that the dispute has taken a toll.
“It’s been very difficult, but I believe if we keep the interests of our students at the center of our work and our conversations and don’t focus so much on the past but where we need to go, I believe we’ll be able to get there,” he said. “That will be one of the big things that I’ll be working on here moving forward.”
The memorandum of understanding calls for the creation of a "vaccine work group" made up of district staff and union members. The group will provide updates on lobbying efforts to prioritize educators in the vaccine distribution timeline. It will also work to set up a site at the district for administering vaccines and work on a way to expedite vaccinations for employees.
In terms of expanding in-person learning, the agreement gives a lot of decision-making to safety committees at each school.
Each school will have a building safety and health conditions review team. The team will include the school nurse, a counselor, educators and a building administrator working in person. Each team will be able to vote to delay expanding in-person instruction beyond kindergarten through second grade. That means different schools could be on different timetables for resuming face-to-face learning.
“Every school will begin, based on their unique community, to come up with what makes the most sense, if it makes the most sense to bring fifth grade back or third grade back,” Duran said. “Instead of having a uniform rollout, I think we’ll really empower schools to think about what’s going to be best to serve their students.”
Snow said the creation of a safety and health conditions review team at each school “does establish an unprecedented level of local control over decision-making.”
She said that while the district did not agree to their request to wait until educators are vaccinated to bring whole grade levels of kids back to classrooms, the agreement did put in place some key safety measures that will protect staff.
“It does also establish more of a plan for getting the vaccine to staff. It establishes more of a plan for ensuring that staff concerns are addressed before they’re potentially put into harm’s way,” she said. “So there are a lot of provisions that have now been put on paper that up until recent events district leaders were unwilling to negotiate, so in that sense, there’s definitely progress here.”