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Seattle school district backs down from plan to assign educators child care duties

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courtesy of Launch
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Community child care organizations, including Launch, are providing care for the children of first responders, health care staff, and other essential workers while schools are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

UPDATE, April 7: Corrects name of Boys and Girls Clubs of King County.

The Seattle school district has backed away from a plan to assign educators to provide child care for first responders and medical workers, after the union representing teachers and other school staff said providing that care had not been negotiated and was outside of their regular duties.

In an email to staff, Superintendent Denise Juneau wrote that the city had told the district to provide child care to front-line workers addressing the coronavirus pandemic in order to keep receiving the city’s pre-kindergarten levy funding. That pays for the salaries of 80 Seattle school district employees, she wrote.

But she said that after learning of “serious concerns” among members of the Seattle Education Association, “we will no longer be asking our SPS educators to sign up to provide child care. We want you to focus on providing our students with continuous learning in creative ways.”

In a statement, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan expressed some frustration with the district, and said the city “would welcome much needed action for more predictable and long term services from Seattle Public Schools.”

“The city’s interest is ensuring essential workers have child care,” Durkan said. “Despite being asked by Gov. Inslee to prioritize this action, the school district was unable to fund preschool or child care options. As a result, the city and county have stepped up to provide these resources as a bridge.”

Durkan said the city will continue working with community child care organizations. 

CHILD CARE OPENINGS

At the same time, Boys and Girls Clubs of King County is operating 18 child care sites for essential workers and has about 800 openings available, President and Chief Executive Laurie Black said. The organization is requiring a $50 joining fee, but otherwise the care is free for front-line workers, including public safety personnel, health care workers, grocery employees and others, she said.

Black said the organization is able to staff those sites by shifting workers from other locations that had to shut down amid the school closures.

“We have the flexibility to actually increase the number of youth we’d be able to take by opening up additional school sites,” Black said. “That would allow us to flex even higher.”

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Credit courtesy of the Boys and Girls Clubs of King County
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Boys and Girls Clubs of King County has instituted safety protocols including having more distance between children in its programs.

Five of the child care sites offered by Boys and Girls Clubs are located in Seattle public schools. The organization also has agreements with the Tukwila and Lake Washington School Districts to provide care during to front-line workers, Black said.

Another child care organization, Launch, is operating four sites in Seattle offering free care to frontline workers, said Mari Offenbecher, interim executive director. Even with a lower student to teacher ratio that's required because of social distancing measures to stem the coronavirus pandemic, Launch has been able to find enough staff because eight of its other sites have had to close, she said. 

"We’re staffing the sites with Launch employees who have opted in to be on the front lines," Offenbecher said. "We are paying hazard pay to our employees as an incentive, so they're getting a 30 percent increase in pay for their willingness to come in and provide services to essential families."

Launch has space to accept 40 more children right now, she said.

EDUCATOR PERSPECTIVE

Several educators said they were taken aback when they received an email Wednesday night saying teachers and other staff had to sign up for child care shifts. 

James Whitney Kahn, a paraeducator who works with students with disabilities at Madison Middle School in West Seattle, said the email "felt like an attack." He has diabetes and is immunocompromised, conditions that make him vulnerable if he were to get sick with COVID-19. 

Kahn said members of the Seattle Education Association want to make sure that the children of first responders and medical personnel are taken care of. 

"That's what we live for. That's what we're passionate about," he said. "But this was not the way to do it."

He said the district should have worked out a more collaborative approach with the union and offered hazard pay for those workers who did choose to provide child care.

Lauren Ware Stark, who teaches humanities and classes to English language learners at Cleveland High School, is part of a caucus within the Seattle Education Association called Social Equity Educators that had written a petition challenging the idea that educators, who are not trained as child care workers, should serve in that capacity. 

"It's incredibly inappropriate to assign educators a duty that is outside of their profession, to not recognize their professionalism, to not recognize the substantial work that we are all doing right now to transition to remote learning," Stark said.

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In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.