Amid burnout, concern over special ed, Washington stands alone as only state with teachers on strike

Washington is currently the only state in the country with teachers on strike right now (though teachers in Columbus, OH, did strike last month).

Educators in five school districts across western Washington voted to strike this year, including Seattle, Tumwater, Eatonville, Ridgefield, and Kent. Kent ended its strike after nine days, and students started school on Thursday. Teachers in Port Angeles voted to authorize a strike but reached an agreement with the district before the first day of school.

Teachers share similar concerns across different districts.

Many say they’re exhausted.

“1, 2, 3, 4 — we won’t take it anymore!” educators chanted outside Rising Star Elementary on Thursday, the third day of the strike for Seattle Education Association (SEA) members.

“I have definitely experienced that burnout,” said Ibijoke Idowu, a special education teacher at Rising Star.

The president of the Washington Education Association (WEA), who helps support the local unions, was in Seattle on Thursday at picket lines.

“I think the workload has increased substantially. It increased through the pandemic,” said Larry Delaney, president of WEA.

And he says the situation isn’t improving.

“One of the consistencies we’ve seen throughout the state, whether in Port Angeles that reached an agreement, Kent, Seattle, Ridgefield — it’s about class size and case load, it’s about providing wraparound services that students need,” Delaney said.

The problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and it is bringing a slight uptick in the number of districts with teachers striking this year.

“We have about 280 some odd districts in the state. Every year we might have two or three (strikes) and this year we have five,” Delaney said. “To a certain extent, these are contagious. When we see one local organize and take action, others say, ‘well, we’ve got similar conditions here, similar concerns for our students, our community, our educators, maybe this is something we should take a look at too.’ It’s also a credit to the organizing we’ve done over the years here in Washington.”

Eatonville teachers are on day two of their strike. Paraeducators in Tumwater are rallying Thursday night outside district headquarters demanding changes to “poverty wages.” They have voted to authorize a strike if an agreement isn’t reached by Sept. 11.

Teachers in Ridgefield are ready to go on strike Friday but are going through another round of negotiations on Thursday evening.

The Kent School District reached an agreement with KEA after educators there went on strike for nine school days or nearly two weeks.

One sticking point for Seattle teachers is staffing for special education students and how they’re taught. The school district is incorporating students with special needs into the general education classroom.

“Today, the way we segregate the students receiving special education services does not offer the best pathway,” said Seattle Public Schools superintendent Brent Jones in a video provided by the school district. “Imagine schools where the most vulnerable learn beside their peers.”

But special ed teachers believe how it’s being done isn’t right and they’re picketing to be heard.

“Those special education cuts that are being made, they don’t help the students,” said Idowu, who has been teaching special education for seven years. “It doesn’t help students if we don’t have the staff needed to support them.”

WEA says these themes – workloads, class sizes, advocating for teacher and student mental health — are areas where more teachers are pushing for change.

“I think that this is going to be more of the norm — not necessarily strikes, but these issues,” Delaney said.

An SEA spokesperson said there is good progress being made at the bargaining tables and a tentative contract agreement is “very close” as of Thursday afternoon.

Classes are canceled for Friday, and SPS families will find out by 3 p.m. Friday if classes will be able to start on Monday.