Seattle schools announce return for students without union agreement, sparking controversy and confusion

SEATTLE — School districts across Western Washington are returning to the classroom. But in Seattle, Sunday brought another day of bargaining without any agreement.

Still, the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) district is plowing ahead, saying some students will return Thursday.

They shared robocalls and shared videos with parents on social media, welcoming back preschool and pre-K-12 Special Education Intensive Service Pathways students, and explaining the safety measures families can expect when they return.

“We all know an agreement has to happen for everything to work out, and the robocalls just strictly state like, the kids are going back to school,” said Casey Lynn, a Seattle parent. “I just feel like it’s really misleading on the district’s part,” she said.

But parents say they know there’s no agreement yet between the district and the teacher’s union, Seattle Education Association.

“I just think it’s insane — I’m like what are you doing?” Lynn said about the district’s announcements.

SPS said that if teachers are not back in the classroom this week, central staff and administrators are planning to supervise the students on Thursday and Friday.

A SEA union representative and occupational therapist in the district, Joy Springer, says one holdup is that teachers want safety precautions in writing.

“We found was when there were violations of that contract or safety violations, when it wasn’t in writing in the contract, we weren’t protected,” Springer said.

She said some schools in the district are less prepared than others.

“Not every school is ready to return,” Springer said. “One of the big things at the bargaining table right now is inequity across the district,” she said.

Public health ethics expert at UW Bothell, Dr. Dan Bustillos, points out that resources vary dramatically between schools.

“Schools are traditionally underfunded,” Bustillos said. “If the teachers feel unsafe and they can point to real lapses in precautions, in the rigor of precaution taken in a particular school, I would side with the teachers,” he said.

Bustillos added that, despite teachers getting vaccinated, the precautions are still critical because not all teachers are vaccinated, the vaccines are not 100% effective, and the students will not be getting the shot any time soon.

The SEA union says it’s also fighting for stronger remote options for families who don’t want their children to return.

A survey from Seattle Public Schools of “All PreK-1 Students and Students Receiving Special Education Services in Intensive Pathways” showed more families of color are choosing to stick with remote learning.

The survey found that 56% of white families want in-person learning, compared to 47% of Hispanic families, 33% of Asian and Black families, and just 28% of Native American families who are opting for their children to return to the classroom.

“I’m not fighting to prevent in-person. I’m fighting for a plan that I think is way better for my students than what the district has currently proposed. And I think that kind of gets lost,” Springer said.

Meanwhile parents and students are caught in the middle.

“It feels like two parents are getting a divorce and fighting,” Lynn said. “I can’t even imagine being a teacher — and it sucks being a parent in this,” she said.

A school district spokesperson said the superintendent has the authority to determine what is considered “essential” and an existing memorandum of understanding that dictates what staff members work in person was modified to include additional special education teachers, and pre-K teachers.

“This MOU included the recognition that SPS can identify those needs that are determined to be ‘essential,’” the school district stated in a news release.

The school board voted at the end of February to approve that change — something the union does not agree with.