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Bellevue district will bring 2nd-graders back even after teachers union votes against it

courtesy of Bellevue School District

UPDATE, 4:12 pm: Adds information about the Sedro-Woolley School District.

Bellevue Superintendent Ivan Duran says the district will continue with its plan to welcome about 770 second-graders back for in-person learning on Thursday, even though teachers may not show up.

The Bellevue Education Association voted on Tuesday to call on the school district to pause its expansion of in-person learning, saying it should be delayed until all educators have had full access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

In an interview with KNKX, Duran said district leaders are disappointed by the union's move. He said each school has a plan in place to staff classrooms with substitute teachers, administrators and other certificated employees to welcome second-graders in case their regular teachers do not show up. Duran said the district has been providing in-person education to hundreds of students since September, including early learners, children who are English-language learners and students who need special education services. 

"And in all those situations, we have followed the risk mitigation strategies. We are wearing masks, we are following physical distancing, and we are proving and showing that you can still return students back before educators and other staff members are vaccinated," he said.

Allison Snow, president of the Bellevue Education Association, said the district has not fully addressed the safety concerns of members, including questions that remain about substitute teacher coverage.

“We do not in any way want this to be about us versus students. This is us versus COVID,” Snow said. “And this is us standing united to ensure the best possible working conditions for our staff so that they ensure the best possible working conditions for our students.”

The pressure of overseeing online learning at home since last March has caused stress for many families. One single mother said she’s spent thousands of dollars on care for her children when they would normally be at school and she’s now investigating private school options. 

But Seth Farber, father of a Bellevue second grader, said he will not send his son to in-person instruction because he wants to show support for the teachers.

"If we want to open schools, which is great, school staff should be high up the priority list to get vaccinated and we should wait until they’re vaccinated to open the buildings back up or to send more kids in," Farber said.

The governor recently changed the vaccine distribution guidelines to prioritize school employees after people over age 65 and people over age 50 living in multigenerational homes. But even after that change, it’s unclear exactly when school staff will have access as doses remain limited. 

As the virus continues to spread throughout Washington, Bellevue educators said now is not the time to resume in-person instruction. The move to resume face-to-face learning is playing out differently district by district. Tacoma and Mercer Island recently welcomed kindergartners back to classrooms. 

The Sedro-Woolley Education Association reached a memorandum of understanding with the school district about a return to classrooms after the district agreed to help educators get access to the vaccine as quickly as possible. That includes the district committing to partner with local providers and the local hospital to facilitate speedy vaccination.

Snow said if the Bellevue district does not agree to the pause, educators will switch their classes to all independent assignments on Thursday and Friday. In addition to the pause they’ve requested, Snow said they would like district leaders to return to the negotiating table to address safety questions they say remain unanswered.

Duran said the district has been meeting with the union to reach agreement on unresolved issues, including concerns about susbstitutes. 

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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