As Seattle Public Schools Negotiates Some In-Person Classes Resuming, Equity Questions Loom

by Ari Robin McKenna

This week, the Seattle Public School (SPS) District and the Seattle Education Association (SEA) resumed bargaining about when the return to in-person education for pre-K to first grade — as well as students enrolled in moderate to intensive special education service pathways — will happen and what it will look like. In a pandemic month that also featured a failed coup and the inauguration of our country’s first Black, Asian, and female vice president, SPS has already seen a school board member abruptly resign and the staff of a South End elementary school announce that they will refuse to return to in-person learning until it’s safe for their community to do so. With pressure mounting to reopen SPS as soon as possible and bargaining already strained, there is mounting evidence that suggests white families stand to benefit more and that their communities will face fewer impacts from a return to in-person learning.

In a Facebook message posted on Jan. 7, SPS board representative Eden Mack announced her resignation. Mack, who represents District 4 (which includes the neighborhoods of Magnolia, Queen Anne, and Southern Ballard) mentioned a “dysfunctional culture” and also stated, “The massive gap between the true cost of providing basic education in an urban school district and what the State provides is not imaginary.” Mack then went on to ask the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) of the state of Washington for an “intervention.”

Erratic state funding is central to the travesty of being a SPS educator: Every year, teachers wait with bated breath for levies to pass or the Reduction in Forces (RIF) to fall. So it’s unclear if OSPI is in a position to effectively intervene, and it’s also not clear what prompted Mack’s resignation, but she did wax specific in regards to the upcoming budget votes: “I can’t in good conscience take another vote on a budget that does not even provide for a full time nurse in every school.” At a Jan. 19 virtual town hall, Superintendent Denise Juneau confirmed that despite SPS’ expressed desire to reopen 70 elementary, pre-K–8, and K–8 buildings in a little over a month, state funding had not come through to provide for a nurse in each building.

A day later, most of the staff of Dearborn Park International Elementary School (DPIS) wrote a letter which circulated widely on social media. In the preamble published by the Emerald, Dearborn staff members spoke about their collective mindset. “Every one of us would rather be teaching in person, but until we can return to school in a way that minimizes the risk to children, the multi-generational families they live with, the staff, and our own families, we will speak out strongly against any attempt to rush back into school!” Located on the Rainier Valley side of Beacon Hill, the staff of DPIS also chose to advocate for the broader South End community, saying, “We wanted to share this letter with the wider public to ensure that the voices of educators from a South End school are heard on this important issue — not only voices from other parts of the city.”

While it may not be entirely clear locally which regions or demographic groups are urgently pressuring SPS to return to in-person learning, data from other metropolitan school districts about who is choosing to send their children back into school buildings paints a pretty clear picture.

Rachel Cohen, a journalist based in Washington D.C. who has been covering the national debate about the return to in-person learning, said recently on the podcast On the Media, “What we are seeing in survey after survey, state after state, and in terms of who actually signs up to go back to school: white and affluent families are disproportionately more likely to be sending their kids back to in-person learning.” In the largest urban school district in the country, New York City, white children are 16% of overall enrollment, and Black children are 25%, yet 12,000 more white students have returned to in-person learning than Black students, Eliza Shapiro reported in the New York Times in December. In Chicago, when a return date was proposed by the district for a K–8 return to in-person learning, WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station reported on the results of stark disparities in a survey of families: 67.5% of white respondents said they planned to send their students back to school, whereas 33% of Asian families, 31% of Latino families, and 33.9% of Black families said they would be sending their children back into physical classrooms.

There is also data which justifies the caution of BIPOC parents, whose families and communities are more likely to be affected by a return to in-person learning. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) bluntly states on their Work and School page, “Long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.” Because our neighborhoods overlay the cruel historical patterns which have shaped them, the pandemic is more of an exacerbator than a “Great Equalizer.” A National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) study published in December 2020 and conducted by multiple universities, including the University of Washington, says a return to in-person schooling, “Is associated with increased COVID spread in communities with relatively high pre-existing levels of COVID. … These findings are consistent with much of the epidemiological literature that suggests that the risks of public schools leading to increased COVID spread rise with the level of pre-existing COVID infection in communities.”

The King County Public Health website shows that currently there is a rate of 1,537 and 1,847.5 positive cases per 100,000 people in Ballard and Magnolia/Queen Anne, respectively. Meanwhile, in Southeast Seattle where DPIS is located, the rate is 4,889.3. So while communities in Southeast Seattle already have rates of COVID cases (and deaths) three times higher than those in the district which Mack used to represent, a rushed return to in-person learning will likely lead to those numbers rising at an even higher rate. Meanwhile, communities in whiter parts of the city presumably pushing for a rushed return will face significantly less risk of increasing the rate of cases in their communities, or the amount of lives lost.

Alexandra Olins, a founder and co-admin of a private Facebook group “Reopen Seattle Public Schools” that now boasts over 1,200 followers, recently stated at a Jan. 13 School Board Meeting: “Miami Dade has been fully open since September, New York is open for K through 5. There have been disruptions but that is OK and to be expected.” After listing other local districts’ plans to reopen, Olins says of SPS, “The difference is they are not making excuses, they are not saying no, they are not blaming and deflecting, and frankly they are not gaslighting.”

School Board Director Chandra Hampson, responded to the pressure of these comparisons in a recent Facebook post, saying: “Before you email us at the Board about return I ask that you educate yourself with two things: 1) review the ACTUAL (provided) list of urban schools and their stated status, many currently listed with return dates are now reporting significant further delays based on both case increases and negotiation breakdown 2) talk to your teacher if they are open to it. They may have significant concerns you’ve not thought of or understood. They miss your kids without question, but we owe them a conversation about why a return is a scary, overwhelming prospect for them that they might struggle to agree to.”

Perhaps also feeling the pressure of parent groups like that which Olins has assembled, yet striking a different tone towards teachers and the bargaining process than Hampson, SPS Superintendent Juneau announced earlier this month that Pre K to Grade 1 would resume in-person learning on March 1 — a date the board unanimously voted for in December. Yet in doing so, she essentially stated the District’s aspirational date, without having concluded negotiations with SEA. Juneau appears to be trying to shift the pressure of parents to SEA, but risks undermining a bargaining process that is already fraught. SEA leadership — which secured language in the August 2020 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that the existing remote learning paradigm will proceed through the end of this school year — now has less incentive to negotiate. The union responded to Juneau’s premature announcement by stating, “Educators are ready to negotiate in good faith and will continue to insist that any in-person model centers safety and equity for the school community. … We also believe that it is important to be transparent and honest with families.”

With the new, more contagious COVID variant now detected in Washington state and producing fresh uncertainty and closing previously opened schools in Europe, it remains to be seen if the push for an urgent return to in-person learning — likely centered in predominantly white areas — will hold sway here in Seattle, within a King County whose executive and public health directors have openly acknowledged that the system iniquities of racism were “a public health crisis” before the pandemic even began.

Editor’s Note: After publication, we added that the SPS school board unanimously voted in support of the March 1 date to send preK–first graders back to school and that students enrolled in moderate to intensive special education service pathways are part of the District’s March 1 return plan.

Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. You can contact him through his website.

Featured Image: A classroom in South Shore PK–8. (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna)

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