Highline Teachers Approve March 11 Return, Seattle Begins Limited In-Class Learning March 29

by Ari Robin McKenna

In a general membership meeting of the Highline Education Association (HEA) Monday night, teachers voted to begin a phased return to in-person learning for elementary students beginning with “Pre-K, kindergarten, grade 1, and students served in Intensive Academic Center (IAC) K–12” on March 11, and ending with grade 4 and grade 5 on April 1. A week earlier, the union’s general membership had voted to delay the return to in-person learning until April 19.

This about-face follows an intense, three days last week in which Highline Public School (HPS) Superintendent Susan Enfield announced she would be enlisting as a substitute teacher, a letter sent from HPS Human Resources to teachers who had not been granted remote teaching placement threatened them with “progressive discipline” for not returning to work, and a parent petition circulated claiming a “profound lack of confidence” in Enfield and the HPS school board. It also follows a weekend of further bargaining where “supplemental measures” to the existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two sides were developed.

The Highline teacher’s union vote to ratify the March 11 return date came the night before Seattle Public Schools (SPS) and the Seattle Education Association (SEA) announced this morning that they had reached an agreement to re-open in-class instruction for preschool and students in Intensive Service Pathways on March 29. This accord in Seattle follows last week’s SEA special assembly 98% vote of no confidence in district leadership for what they view as a pattern of bad faith bargaining. After SPS and SEA leaders walked through various school buildings yesterday, accompanied by Washington State Department of Labor and Industries and an independent HVAC contractor, the two parties agreed that “school staff could benefit from additional time to prepare to offer the safest, most equitable in-person learning environments possible in every SPS building.”

Last Monday, March 1, HPS announced to parents that March 11 would be the start date to begin the first phase of in-person learning before the union ratified this agreement. After the March 2 announcement by Washington Governor Jay Inslee that teachers and school staff would be prioritized for vaccines, Highline teachers voted on an amended motion pushing the start date to April 19.

The next morning, Highline teachers had the text of a letter to parents from Enfield in their inboxes, with an indication that she would be sending out the letter to parents later that day. It began:

“This is an incredibly painful message for me to share. The proposal to begin in-person instruction on March 11 was not ratified by members of HEA, our teachers’ union, last night. We are working hard to reach an agreement with our teachers so that we can start in-person instruction on March 11.

I share the frustration and disappointment of our families and students who are counting on returning to in-person learning. I am deeply sorry you continue to be on an emotional rollercoaster that I wish I had the power to prevent.”

The next day, in a theatrical move, Enfield tweeted a photo of herself getting fingerprinted to become a permanent substitute. Meanwhile, teachers who had asked for but had not received a remote placement received an email from the HPS Human Resources’s Chief Talent Officer Steve Grubb that said, “Your failure to return to providing in-person services or have approved leave … will be considered insubordination and/or abandonment of your contract and may result in progressive discipline.”

In an email with an attached petition to Enfield, the HPS school board, union leadership, and various media outlets, ALT PTA, a parent group from various Highline schools “interested in district accountability about socioeconomic and racial equity,” questioned Enfield’s approach:

“Dr. Enfield’s public statements have been perceived by many family members as patronizing and offensive to teachers and community members concerned about the safety of this restart. Teachers were willing to return to the classroom on April 19, once school staff had the opportunity to receive their vaccines, yet the School Board chose to authorize the superintendent to take legal action [4-1, with board director Aaron Garcia the lone vote against] to force them to return in advance of this date. The silence of school board members in the wake of this decision has been noted by many in the community. There are now widely circulating reports that teachers received emails this week threatening them with disciplinary action if they did not fall in line with the district’s chosen start date, despite rumors circulating in the parent community that some of the teachers who requested health accomodations were denied.”

Enfield claims to be pushing this restart on behalf of the children and families who are not being served by remote learning, and while teachers and community members are also deeply concerned about these children and families, a Feb. 24 Pew research survey found that “low-income, minority respondents overwhelmingly support keeping schools closed until teachers are vaccinated. Upper-income, white, and Republican respondents are more likely to want schools reopened as soon as possible.”

In its email, ALT PTA continued, “Please take this to heart. At this moment there is a profound lack of community confidence in Dr. Enfield and in the Highline School Board. The community will remember your bad faith actions this week and will not hesitate to hold those in positions of power accountable for the failures and potential tragedies which may arise if this restart proceeds prematurely.”

Over the past weekend, further bargaining between HPS and HEA took place, and supplemental provisions were added to the existing MOU regarding individual accommodations and school safety measures. Then last night, over two-thirds of Highline teachers voted to approve March 11 as their date to begin phasing in in-person learning.

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. Contact him through his website.

Featured Image: Highline educators are preparing for a phased-in return to in-class learning on March 11. (Photo courtesy of Highline Public Schools.)

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