On either Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, Sept. 7–9, Seattleites wouldn’t have had to go far to notice people picketing in red T-shirts. In front of the more than 100 public school buildings across the city, educators and school staff held up signs that read “On Strike!,” “Fair Contract Now!,” and “#ListenToStudents, #ListenToEducators,” often with parent and student support, food, shade tents, and music blasting. They were buoyed by the frequent yells and honks of passersby.
While last Thursday, Aug. 25, was supposed to be the first day of school, three dozen educators from Meeker Middle School were outside of the building in the 90-degree midday heat. Passing cars on Southeast 192nd Street honked every 10–20 seconds in support of the striking educators; many of the educators wore red and held signs reading “KENT Education Assoc. ON STRIKE!”
“I’m not sure I’m making a difference anymore. We are drowning here.”
by Tracy Castro-Gill and Ari Robin McKenna
(This article is reprinted with permission from the Washington Ethnic Studies Now blog.)
On Tuesday, Nov. 9, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Human Resources Department (HR) sent an email to parents and then 39 minutes later to educators — almost as an afterthought — announcing the unexpected closure of schools just three days later on Nov. 12, sending parents without work flexibility scrambling for childcare.
The HR email author might have mentioned the national teacher shortage. They might have mentioned that — in the wake of the pandemic — substitute teachers have dried up. Nearly every school in the district is shuffling to cover daily absences, with teachers having to use up designated grading and planning time. They might have mentioned that a district calendar initially had Friday as a holiday, and office staff at various schools circulated it before it was updated. They might even have mentioned that, for over a month, staff at SPS district headquarters have been signing up to cover absences — despite, in some cases, not having an active teacher certification.
Instead, HR chalked it up neatly to teachers insisting on taking leave. “We are aware of an unusually large number of SPS staff taking leave on Friday,” the email explained. Then they chose to end the email assuring their audiences that the district’s central office, the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence (JSCEE), would remain open Friday — as if anyone reading this email cared about anything other than classrooms and children.
Brandon Hersey was appointed to the Seattle Public Schools Board to represent District 7 after Betty Patu resigned in 2019. Hersey, who was raised in a home of Black educators, currently lives in Rainier Beach and teaches second grade at Rainier View Elementary in Federal Way. Before becoming a teacher, Hersey’s experience in education policy included working for the Obama Administration as a policy analyst focusing on children and family issues.
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.
In an online press conference on Thursday, March 4, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that in the coming weeks the State would make essential workers, such as agricultural workers, grocery store employees, and law enforcement officers, eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on March 22. This comes a day after he announced, upon prompting from the Biden administration, to immediately make all educators, school staff, and child care workers eligible to be vaccinated.
Washington State has expanded the number of days school districts may offer in-person learning, but teachers will not be moved into earlier phases of vaccination, Gov. Jay Inslee said in a press conference on Feb. 16. Inslee did not immediately provide details on the number of days included in the increase. The State’s rationale for encouraging in-person learning without ensuring that all teachers are vaccinated is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not included vaccinating teachers in its base-level guidance that can help to determine whether in-person learning is safe. The State will allow parents to keep their children on remote learning plans, if they so choose.
In his announcement, Inslee pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recently updated publication regarding operational strategy for schools to open for in-person learning. He said that the CDC’s guidance “broadly aligns” with the State’s suggestions and that the CDC has “also made very clear that mass vaccination of our teachers is not a prerequisite to going back to school.”
In its guidance, the CDC also says that “[t]he following public health efforts provide additional layers of COVID-19 prevention in schools” and lists “[t]esting to identify individuals with a SARS-CoV-2 infection to limit transmission and outbreaks” and “[v]accination for teachers, staff, and in communities as soon as supply allows.”
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.”
Rainier Beach High School freshman Fatima Kabba says it’s really hard for her to learn from home, even with a good internet connection.
“Sometimes, it’s pretty hard, because you can’t find, like, a quiet space to do your work,” Kabba said. “And sometimes there’s other people with different classes, and sometimes you might share the same room with your siblings, so it might be hard for you to concentrate. If we did have online classes, imagine having seven siblings, each one [on] a device — and you’re probably in separate rooms, but you’re going to hear their noises.”