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Seattle Education Association says it's unsafe to resume in-person school given COVID-19 cases

Joe Wolf
Seattle's Garfield High School

UPDATE, 9:10 pm: Adds information about school board directors' proposal that incorporates outdoor education.

As the clock ticks down toward the fall school year, the teachers union in Seattle said it’s not yet safe to return to school buildings, and three school board directors proposed a model of remote instruction with some outdoor education.

The Los Angeles and San Diego school districts have now said they plan to start the school year online. Seattle Public Schools has proposed a hybrid model of some in-person and some remote instruction.

But the Seattle Education Association, the union representing about 6,000 teachers, counselors, librarians, office professionals and other school staff, said that would put students in harm’s way, given that coronavirus cases have been increasing.

“We really need to pay attention to the fact that the transmission rate is high as of this week,” said Jennifer Matter, president of the Seattle Education Association. “The number of cases is much higher than it was in March when we closed schools.”

In recent days, the daily number of new coronavirus cases in King County has been about double what it was in mid-March.

Matter said the union is asking that the district collaborate at the bargaining table to improve remote instruction.

The abrupt shift to distance learning in the spring left many parents and caregivers frazzled and stressed, trying to help their kids manage multiple web sites and stay on track academically. And some students in districts around the state lacked connection to the internet, making it difficult to do assignments at all.

“We know that in the spring we hastily pulled together a remote learning program that needs to be reconfigured,” Matter said. “We need to be spending time with professional development but also training families so they can understand what remote learning looks like and how they can support their children at home.”

In a statement, Seattle Public Schools said it continues to bargain in good faith with the union over the impact of any changed working conditions.

“The safety of our students, families and staff is our top priority,” the district said in a statement, adding that Seattle Public Schools will continue to follow the recommendations of local and state public health departments, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the governor’s office.


Three Seattle school board directors - Liza Rankin, Chandra Hampson and Brandon Hersey - released a draft resolution with their own idea for how to reopen schools safely, and it involves moving some class outside. 

They suggest educators mostly hold classes remotely. But teachers would also spend some time meeting in person with students outside on school grounds or in parks. Rankin said that would give students an opportunity to see each other and their teacher face to face, while reducing the risk of spreading the coronavirus, since growing evidence shows that it spreads more easily inside.

“Everybody was talking about space between students and ventilation and all of this stuff and it was like, `Why are we limited to just in our buildings?'" Rankin said. "All schools are attached to some kind of outdoor space.”

She said some families would still need childcare during remote learning time and schools could offer space to community groups to provide that. The proposal is not on a school board agenda yet, but Hampson said it's important to move quickly as the start of the school year approaches and that the decision is ultimately up to the school board.

“This is our way of trying to restart the conversation in a much more positive direction," Hampson said. "Everyone’s on completely different pages right now and we’re just trying to bring everyone together.”

The district said in a statement that it's focused on "the goal of providing what is best for our students and staff in the coming school year" and that it's been working for months on a fall 2020 school re-entry plan focused on health and safety of students and staff, with input from community members, educators and students. 

"We will continue to work with our educators on every stage of our reopening plan," the district said.

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.
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