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Teachers' unions express concerns as some districts prepare for in-person learning

A sign made with plastic cups that reads "We Miss You" decorates the fence of Lowell Elementary School in Tacoma on April 7, 2020.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
A sign made with plastic cups that reads "We Miss You" decorates the fence of Lowell Elementary School in Tacoma on April 7, 2020.

The frustration among families over remote learning has built up over months. Now some districts, including Mercer Island, Bellevue and Tacoma, are taking steps to bring the youngest students back for in-person school this month.

But they’ll have to get teachers’ unions on board to make that happen.

Mercer Island plans to welcome kindergartners into classrooms on Jan. 6. Tani Lindquist is an elementary PE teacher who has been one of the leaders for the Mercer Island Education Association in negotiations over reopening plans. She said there’s a range of opinions among educators about going back to classrooms – as well as empathy for families trying to manage remote learning.

“There are families who have really struggled. It’s been really difficult to try to manage work and schooling their kids from home. It’s not easy at all,” she said. “Nevertheless, it’s asking a group of people to literally put their lives at risk.”

Lindquist said she thinks the plans to bring the youngest kids back will proceed as planned because the union and the district have worked for a while to make that happen.

But bringing students back for face-to-face instruction has been bumpy in some districts. The Monroe School District gave up on in-person learning for its first-graders in November after facing protests from its educators and concerns from some families.

Gov. Jay Inslee recently changed the state’s guidance that districts use for reopening as a way to encourage more in-person instruction. He said evidence from districts that have done so already shows that risks can be mitigated, with proper safety measures including face masks, maintaining six feet of physical distancing and proper ventilation.

The Tacoma school district plans to bring kindergarten students back starting Jan. 19 on a hybrid schedule of two days a week in class in groups of up to 15 students. On the other days, they’ll have “assignments from their teacher to work on independently from home.” The district’s statement from Dec. 18 spells out plans to bring back other groups of students in phases.

But Shannon Ergun, president of the Tacoma Education Association, said there are still a number of educators who are worried.

“We’ve got the spectrum of people excited to go back ready to move into the classroom and people terrified because they fall into high-risk categories or they don’t believe things are safe right now, and everything in between,” she said.

Ergun said there are unanswered questions about health and safety protocols and logistics when Tacoma starts bringing back kindergartners and then some other students. She said details still to address include figuring out how students will enter buildings to avoid crowding and who will provide backup for teachers when they need bathroom breaks.

The district said in a statement that it’s ready to reopen and has established consistent safety protocols over the last few months.

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.