by Ari Robin McKenna
When Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) mass COVID-19 screening flagged seven of their coworkers last Monday, Kimball Elementary School staff knew they were in for a week. A tight-knit group who has a strong relationship with their Parents, Teachers, and Students Association (PTSA), Kimball’s staff braced themselves.
As the week progressed, Kimball — in Southeast Seattle and serving 75% students of color — was without one Instructional Assistant (IA) after another, as well as multiple teachers and an administrator. By the end of the week, Kimball was short six IAs. School staffs across Seattle have been worn down by factors including a national substitute teacher shortage, the challenges teaching students returning to in-person school after a such long break, and unrealistic pressure to “catch up.” Yet while the entire system is in crisis, throughout last week, Kimball staff approached its actual breaking point.
Kimball Music Teacher and Seattle Education Association (SEA) Union Rep KT Raschko, described staffs’ still-determined ethos in the hallways of the Van Asselt building, where Kimball is housed while its new building is constructed:
“People were trying so hard. Just seeing everyone try to be like, ‘We got this! We can do this!’ Seeing people literally running through the hallway with a walkie talkie trying to get from one end of this massive school to the other, because someone is in crisis and there’s hardly any support around. If you’re with a walkie talkie, you know that you’re one of the only people who’s able to get there, and you’re just gonna book it down that hallway to try and get there if it helps.”
Though the will was there, Raschko began to notice that with each additional absence, things got untenable, and began to take a toll. “What I saw on my colleagues’ faces…was just that they felt overwhelmed by the number of things that were landing on them. They were not going to get to have their lunch because they were going to have to cover for someone else. They weren’t going to get to have their time to run to the bathroom because they had to cover recess supervision for somebody who was absent. They weren’t going to get to go and make those copies that they had planned on during their prep time because they were going to go and supervise something else for another colleague who was out that they had never done before, but they were going to go try and fill in because they knew that with 10 people out of the building, we all had to try and pull extra weight, and no one wanted to let the whole house collapse.”
Raschko says that despite Kimball staffs best effort, two different students at two separate times —both who receive special education services — slipped out of the building and found themselves in dangerously unsafe situations on the busy streets that intersect on the corner where Van Asselt is located. At this point, though still motivated to educate their students, and to do it well, cracks in their collective resolve began to form.
Preventing students who tend to repeatedly elope from their school buildings is a complex staff challenge that is relatively unknown, but is not uncommon — especially in a school like Kimball with Access, Resource, and Focus SPS special education pathways. A 2018 peer-reviewed study called, “Assessing and Treating Elopement in a School Setting” says that it occurs in “34% of individuals diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities and in about 49% of individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.” Effective teacher and IA teams do wonders in buildings across the country to mitigate this significant risk, but in Kimball’s case, down six IAs — who serve the majority of students’ Individual Education Plan hours — doubts emerged in Special Education “check-in” meetings whether they could prevent another occurrence.
Ana Radzi, the mother of three Kimball students and a PTSA committee member, has also been subbing at various schools since last May. She says she’s blessed to have worked with some great IAs, and that she quickly learned how valuable they are to the school community. “IAs are just so undervalued and under-appreciated … others don’t realize their importance — especially in settings where there are students receiving Special Education services — of having that other person be there to help support you. You can have students that just run off, or throw things, or have tantrums and you have to be on your toes all the time, always keeping our eyes out. If you don’t have that extra support, it’s a really big safety issue.”
Without subs coming in from the district, Raschko said teachers wondered late in the week, “At what point does this call get made? How many people have to be out before someone says this is enough? How many people do they think we need to run this building? How many people is it going to take before they realize that we can’t hold this all together?”
Last Friday, after careful deliberation about the impact to families, Kimball’s COVID-reduced staff made the difficult decision that they would best serve their families by requesting from the district that they go remote. “Not being able to promise our families that students are safe when they come to school is … heartbreaking does not even begin to be the right word. It feels wrong to say that we are ready to teach our students when we can’t even assure our families that school is safe right now,” Raschko said. Staff wrote a letter to the district that afternoon, and when they hadn’t heard back by Saturday, wrote another one to their families. Additionally, Kimball teachers filed Labor and Industry forms alleging an unsafe workplace, and collectively took sick leave that Monday. Asked if she supported this action as a parent, Radzi responded, “I feel like Kimball teachers are always going to be thinking about the kids. It’s a shame that they felt that they had to resort to this; some teachers don’t even have sick leave left.”
Recently, the district announced 8 criteria to provide a degree of transparency for when schools will go remote.
Kimball’s 20% student absence rate last week (up 12% from the school year average), puts them well below the district’s bar of 50% for elementary students before remote instruction is considered. Another district criteria reads, “Percent and mix of unfilled positions in a school creates unmanageable operational and/or safety risks.” Though Kimball staff lived this last week, the district did not see adherence to this criteria alone as being sufficient reason to make the switch to remote learning being requested, and instead cancelled school altogether on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of this week; these days will need to be made up at the end of the year.
District Spokesperson Tim Robinson, said, “the numbers aren’t at the point where a transition to remote would be initiated.” About the decision to cancel school at Kimball for three days, Robinson added, “Schools are cancelled when there are staffing issues that can make it unsafe for students — i.e., not enough adult supervision … This is a somewhat fluid situation so things can change day-to-day. Staffing issues at Kimball and other schools are being assessed daily, if not two or three times a day.”
Before 3 p.m. in the afternoon yesterday, Kimball teachers were notified that they would be provided with seven substitutes for today, and that in-person learning would resume. Raschko said she felt “relieved.”
Radzi, who had to cancel her sub assignments the last three days because she didn’t have child care for her four kids, said, “It’s a ripple effect for the community. So now that I’m not working, and I’m not taking my job assignment, the school that I was going to sub at, they’re gonna be stretched thin because the subs shortage is real.”
Editor’s note: This article has been revised to remove the term “flight risk” in order to avoid connoting criminal behavior by students. We also revised a reference to “unprecedented student behavior” to avoid casting blame on students. The Emerald is grateful to readers for pointing out out these missteps and giving us the opportunity to correct them.
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 South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.
📸 Featured Image: The busy intersection of Beacon Avenue South and South Myrtle Street in front of the Van Asselt Interim Site, where Kimball Elementary is housed until their new building is complete. (Photo by Ari Robin McKenna)
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