by Ari Robin McKenna
On Monday afternoon earlier this week, as clouds began to block the sun, the temperature dove from its high of 48 degrees Fahrenheit. Extension cords of various colors trailed out of the heated, fortress-like Franklin High School (FHS) building, built in 1912, and made their way through the bushes and across walkways to where teachers, bundled up, sat at fold-out tables on their laptops, attending virtual meetings. A couple of them appeared to be shivering.
Franklin student teacher Hannah Graether said, matter-or-fact, “Our building is not safe, and we were told to report to work today, and if we didn’t, we would be at risk of insubordination … but we can access our school building Wi-Fi for free here. We are outside because we are supposed to be at our worksite; there’s nothing they can do to make us go into an unsafe building.” A student teacher with her Master’s in Education approaching her Special Education Certification, she’s only gotten the first of her two scheduled COVID-19 vaccination shots.
Graether was one of more than a dozen teachers, student teachers, and instructional assistants (IAs) of high school students in the intensive pathways who were supposed to return to work on Monday, March 29, and did so. From what the Emerald could determine based on accounts from teachers and observations on site was that no instructors entered Franklin on Monday and Tuesday — some came to the rally while others worked from home.
Certified special education teachers develop specially designed instruction (SDI) for their students who are impacted by disabilities to different extents, while also finding as many opportunities as possible to include and support them in the general education curriculum. These teachers work in the following “Primary Service types” listed on the Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) website: Focus, Social/Emotional Learning (SEL), or Distinct — and the balance between SDI and inclusion depends on each student’s individual education plan (IEP), which are regularly reassessed.
The teachers outside Franklin shared a range of complaints and concerns with the Emerald, including: HEPA filters not being installed, district HVAC tests that advised zero occupancy in rooms teachers were supposed to be working in, air quality not being tested after HEPA filters were installed, improper ventilation, insufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and inadequate signage about safety measures.
There were other, underlying concerns on these teachers’ minds as well.
In a speech Tuesday morning from the north steps of FHS, Brian Miyake — a Distinct teacher who works with students who mostly receive SDI — chose to highlight the unexpected learning opportunities that he’s seen blossom during the pandemic: “A lot of my students need complex modifications/accommodations to access instruction and learning. We’re working on activities of daily living where you need to work on washing your hands, wiping your mouth maybe, using the bathroom. And then working on social skills. At this point in the year, there has been a lot of learning in ways that our education team had not anticipated, especially with communication skills. [Students] making connections with their peers in ways that they weren’t doing in the classroom that’s been really surprising and really inspiring.” Miyake also weighs this unexpected social growth with an April return to in-person learning, saying that it will take well over a month to build routines with his students. “The benefit of returning to the classroom is pretty low … Essentially, we’re going to be starting school all over again.”
In a speech on Tuesday, Hannah Graether also emphatically stressed what has often seemed to get lost in the months-long debate about when and how students should, “go back to school.” She reminded those listening that this language diminishes what teachers have been doing for a year: “Learning has been happening remotely. Learning has been happening remotely.”
Jonathan Rosenblum, whose child is a ninth grader at Franklin, views these teachers fighting to delay the return to in-person learning until everyone is safe as heroes. “In standing up for your own safety and health, you’re standing up for the safety and health of your students, and indeed, the entire community,” he said. “So stand strong and stand up for all of us, please.”
Uti Hawkins, the vice president of the Seattle Education Association (SEA), the city’s teachers’ union, gave an emphatic speech touching on the tensions that had been mounting for months between SEA and SPS, as well as SEA claims that the district was “bargaining through the media.” “When we say something is not ready,” Hawkins said, “it is a district responsibility to communicate that out, so that our students, our staff in these buildings, and the community and families all have the same information, so that we can get it right and not have anyone die from this. That is the obligation.”
In her speech, Hawkins, who used to work in the district, acknowledged that Fred Podesta, SPS Chief Operations Officer, is likely doing his best. But later, speaking to the Emerald, Hawkins speculated on what was going wrong, “I think this has so much to do with communication, and direct communication with our educators. When something is asked for, it should not have to be hierarchical to get an answer on safety. And I think there’s a breakdown there.”
The teachers on site were not willing to blame Franklin Principal Andrew O’Connell, instead praising him. Graether noted he was “a great guy.” School Board director Brandon Hersey was also spoken highly of because, “He was the only one who didn’t vote to essentialize us,” said one teacher referring to a controversial Feb. 26 board vote to classify staff as “essential workers.” Yet there is clearly a deep distrust that the SPS district office will follow through on agreed upon safety members before their students arrive next Monday.
Bobby Walston, speaking to the Emerald after the speeches wrapped up, had a lot to say about the cumulative impact of the past few months, the futile work necessary to set up a special education classroom at this point of the year, and his own safety concerns about the community he serves. He’s an IA in the SEL program (and a Master’s of Education Student at the University of Washington) who has had his first but not his second COVID-19 vaccination shot.
“I feel like this is a lot that’s going on right now … in the midst of distance learning and trying to cope with making sure our kids get the best support that we can give them under the circumstances,” Walston said. “I think we’ve been doing a great job. To have this thrown on us feels like it’s rushed and overwhelming. And in a sense, I feel like our district has really given into a lot political pressure, and it’s not serving our kids. It takes so much work and structure to get kids into a building and get them settled. We have three months left of school. Why are we rushing? Why don’t we prepare to have a strong start in the fall as opposed to rushing and trying to get them in the building because we’re afraid of not getting funding or whatever the other issues may be? It’s a lot.”
“Our families don’t need it,” he went on, “our staff doesn’t need it, and it’s not even considering our families that are in a school like Franklin, where we have a huge Muslim population — we have so many different religions and faiths and ethnicities. Not everyone believes in vaccinations. Everyone doesn’t want to give it to their child. What about our children or our families who aren’t going to be vaccinated? Or are we going to put them at risk as well because some populations are vaccinated, and some aren’t? How’s that gonna work for everyone else?”
On Wednesday morning, after a district walk-through of FHS to check progress on safety measures, teachers decided en masse to roll up their extension cords, fold up their tables and come in from the cold. They reentered the FHS building around noon, and began doing the delicate, detail-oriented work of setting up their classrooms to serve students in intensive pathways.
After a whirlwind few days, Graether said about the reentry, “From the language of the Tentative Agreement (TA) we were able to make an informed decision to enter the building [based on] information that was presented to us today. There will be more information needed for fellow educators to return next week, and for students to make an informed decision. Everything is evolving.”
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA before settling in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach). He writes about education for the South Seattle Emerald. You can contact him through his website.
Featured Image: SEA President Jennifer Matter and Seattle Public Schools (SPS) teacher Hannah Graether speak to teachers during a walkout at Franklin High School on Tuesday, March 30. Teachers for intensive service pathways students did not return to in-class instruction for two and a half days to draw attention to what they say are inadequate safety precautions and disruptions for students with special needs as a result of SPS reopening plans. (Photo: Ari McKenna)
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