As Schools Plan Reopening, Staff Presses Safety Issues

24 districts nearby Vashon have already successfully opened to broader in-person learning.

As Vashon Island School District prepares to roll out in-person learning at Chautauqua Elementary School on March 1 (see EOC report, “Community Developments,” page 8), unions for both teachers and support staff at the school will soon re-engage in bargaining for increased safety measures and employment considerations in the district.

Both Vashon Education Association (VEA), representing teachers, and Vashon Education Support Personnel (VESP), representing para-educators, specialists and office staff, signed memorandums of understanding last September that addressed COVID-19 concerns.

The current negotiations will revise and add to those MOUs, said Slade McSheehy, superintendent of schools.

In an email sent last week to district parents announcing the move to hybrid education, McSheehy acknowledged the concerns felt by some staff and families about returning to the buildings.

“I promise you, we would not ask students, teachers, and staff to return to buildings if we were not confident we can do it safely,” he said, referencing guidance from the Washington Department of Health that says re-opening could take place with proper masking, distancing and sanitation protocols.

At the same time, he said he was in support of school staff members getting immediate access to vaccinations and would continue his advocacy efforts on their behalf.

He also framed the decision as one made with equity in mind.

“For some families, it will mean they can return to work or increase their work hours and their ability to provide for their families,” he said. “Our commitment to equity and to becoming an anti-racist organization compels us to hear and serve all students and families on Vashon.”

According to McSheehy, 24 districts nearby Vashon have already successfully opened to broader in-person learning. He also said that VISD had been successful in achieving zero transmission in small group learning and at its childcare site, Vashon Kids, which has been open since March.

Local doctors, community weigh in

Leading up to the announcement of hybrid learning, leaders of both unions expressed concerns about a broad return of students to the classroom, given the slow roll-out of vaccines in Washington, merging variants, and the fact that school staff has not been placed in top tiers for vaccination.

Union leaders said their concerns had grown after a meeting on Feb. 1, where an official of Public Health King County Seattle and doctors representing Vashon’s Medical Reserve Corps presented guidance to attendees.

The PHSKC deputy, Sara Rigel, reinforced the guidance of the Washington Department of Health, saying it was safe for teachers to go back into the schools for expanded in-person learning prior to vaccination, as long as strict safety protocols were enforced.

Vashon’s MRC doctors James Bristow, Zach Miller, Clayton Olney and Ina Oppliger had a different message, based on factors including their rigorous contract tracing efforts on Vashon, which found that 15% of all COVID-19 traced by the MRC on Vashon had been in children ages 16 and younger, with almost all of those cases being asymptomatic.

They also said that there are no definitive, peer-reviewed studies showing how well children transmit the virus.

They recommended a mix-and-match list of mitigations for the district to consider in order to limit the potential for community spread of the virus that could result from asymptomatic students in classrooms.

These included timing re-opening to coincide with full or partial vaccination of school staff; complete vaccination of Vashon’s elderly population; implementing surveillance testing at the school; better masking for teachers; and having returning staff, students and parents sign a social contract pledging to adhere to safe behaviors before returning to school.

At a school board meeting on Feb. 11, the night before McSheehy announced the start-date for in-person classes at Chautauqua, community members and one teacher weighed in with sometimes emotional public comments.

Two letters applauded the plans for re-opening; the rest were critical or contained caveats.

McMurray Middle School teacher Patty Gregorich was among the commenters, revealing results from a teacher survey that revealed that 31 teachers had indicated that they did not feel safe returning to the classroom and had urged their union to fight the decision.

Another letter, signed by 65 islanders, also expressed concern for the safety of teachers and the community and included a long list of questions regarding ventilation, mask enforcement, community communication and teachers’ job security.

Another letter, signed by seven more islanders, generally supported reopening schools but pressed for added safety measures including testing. Islander David Hackett criticized board members for passing a resolution that ceded authority to Supt. McSheehy to alone make the decision to re-open schools.

Visit planned by Labor & Industries

In subsequent communication with The Beachcomber, McSheehy said that representatives from Washington State Labor & Industries (L&I) would come to the district on Feb. 23 to do a safety inspection of all school buildings in the district, including checks on ventilation issues in each school building.

VEA leaders, with the support of VESP, had requested the consultation by L&I, said Elizabeth Parrish, VESP co-president.

“The consultation with L&I is something that has been done successfully in other districts as a way to address any outstanding health and safety issues and to build staff confidence that safety protocols are in place,” said Parrish. “The District was quick to set up the meeting and extended an invitation for all three bargaining units to have a representative present (VEA, VESP, SEIU, representing kitchen and custodial workers) for the walk-through.”

Teachers return to bargaining

In an email to The Beachcomber on Sunday, VEA co-presidents Jenny Granum and Sarah Hamill, joined by VEA President Lisa Miller, outlined the union’s current position, and factors leading up to it.

They said they were first informed of the plan to re-open schools on Feb. 8.

Previously, in mid-January, the union had conducted a poll of their membership which found that a large majority of teachers did not feel safe in returning to in-person education prior to being vaccinated.

Miller, Granum and Hamill said that after hearing McSheehy’s decision to re-open, they had contacted their representative at Washington Education Association, who told them that making a stand to not return to the classroom until they were vaccinated would be an argument they wouldn’t win.

The representative, the VEA leaders said, told them that federal, state and local health authorities all encouraged re-opening schools with safety procedures in place and that most schools in Washington are currently in a re-opening phase.

Finally, the representative warned that some local unions had already tried to take the stand of not returning until vaccinated, and had been unsuccessful, setting precedent.

Miller, Granum and Hamill then presented that information to their members and asked them to fill out a survey indicating if they still wanted to pursue the position of not returning to the classroom until vaccinated, or instead, accept the start date and have VEA leadership focus on the negotiating a new agreement around safety and work conditions.

The union leaders reported that VEA members are split in their opinions on how the union should respond.

“This is highly personal with each individual’s circumstances and beliefs weighing heavily on what is best for them and their family,” Granum, Miller and Hamill said. “Some would hold out for the vaccine even if it meant fighting a battle with the district we are not likely to win. Others feel confident enough in the mitigation strategies that they are ready to start today. Our teachers love their jobs and are willing to sacrifice a lot for the students and the families they serve, but for some, the idea they may bring COVID home to family members, our community members or get really sick themselves is difficult, to say the least.”

Hamill, Granum and Miller also expressed their frustration with Gov. Inslee’s decision not to prioritize school staff for vaccination, while simultaneously raising the numbers of allowable community infections to open hybrid learning.

“This was really tough, especially when the criteria seems so arbitrary from state to state,” they said, adding that the presentation by Vashon’s MRC had validated their concerns.

But for now, they said, VEA’s focus is on negotiating a clear agreement about safety, working conditions and workloads for reopening. They also said they will address the possibility of remote assignments or different types of leaves for members who are high-risk or have high-risk family members or generally do not feel safe coming back into the building.

In closing, they said that in speaking transparently about their concern and negotiations, they hope to quell misinformation and heated debates in the community about re-opening.

“We worry that this is putting added pressure and divide among our community and teachers,” they said. “We will work with the district to do what is best for our staff, our students and our community.”

Paras, office staff and specialists also bargain

VESP also surveyed its members last week around the District’s proposed move to hybrid instruction on March 1, said Parrish.

She reported that the union did not have strong support for a move to hybrid — 36 of VESP’s 40 members replied to the survey with only 33% voting to proceed to hybrid.

“We are continuing our conversations with the district to help determine what mitigation strategies will be effective in increasing staff confidence,” said Parrish. “At the same time, we are hearing loud and clear that many of our high-risk members are still not comfortable returning in-person.”

Parrish cited the importance of the MRC’s report to the school, saying the union’s members were “very concerned about the possibility of community spread, especially with the new variants at our doorstep.”

VESP’s negotiations, she said, will also address leave provisions and remote assignments for at-risk employees.

“The district has indicated that remote assignments may be limited for classified staff at Chautauqua when students begin to return in-person, putting the lives and livelihoods of valued staff members at risk,” Parrish said. “We are working with the District to explore leave provisions or continuing remote assignments for these staff members to help minimize any lost wages or benefits.”

Parrish said that VESP was heartened by the district’s agreement to consult with L&I and that the union was also advocating for building-based safety committees, which are now in the process of being established.

She also noted the MRC and VashonBePrepared have offered to consult with the district prior to resuming in-person instruction to help mitigate the risk to employees in the classroom setting, and the union would like to see that come to pass.

“The outcome of these safety components will be very important in determining if we are ready to safely and slowly reopen in-person instruction,” Parrish said. “This is a complex situation and it will take patience and collaboration on the part of VESP and the District. Our leadership team is committed to ensuring that our classified staff has a say in the working conditions that they will be returning to and in making sure that the school environment is safe for both staff and students.”

In a phone interview, McSheehy also described the situation as complex, particularly around the issue of teacher assignments and leave. He said that some discussions on social media pages on this subject have been misleading.

“The circumstances regarding leaves and assignments are complex and not appropriate for social media since every staff member and how they are impacted by COVID are handled on a case-by-case basis and are confidential,” he said. “That being said, we share a common concern and common purpose, keeping our community safe while providing exceptional learning experiences for our students. We are working with each staff member one-on-one regarding how any leave or assignment is impacted by COVID. Each staff member’s circumstances are unique.”

He described the current negotiations with VEA and VESP as productive but said it wouldn’t be appropriate to further comment on them.

Currently, the District has posted job openings for two special education para-educators, a substitute para-educator and a campus monitor — all support personnel positions.

School nurse pushes for safety

Sarah Day, who is VISD’s school nurse, also spoke to The Beachcomber, saying that her current work includes creating checklists for the safety committees that will be established in each re-opened school building.

She said that she, too, looked forward to L&I’s upcoming visit to Vashon, and hearing their report on ventilation in Vashon buildings, among other concerns.

In the fall, Day was largely responsible for creating the district’s long and detailed safety handbook, which can now be found on the district’s website. The handbook has been continually updated, she said.

She also expressed concern about variants, saying that she would recommend for teachers to double-mask. She has secured a number of high-quality face-coverings made by Vashon Maskmakers for both staff and students.

“This is going to be a whole community effort,” she said. “We have to be very consistent and rigorous in all our safety protocols. It will take oversight and consultation and making sure we are following all the protocols to pull this off safely.”

She also said she was consulting with VESP and VEA to advise on safety concerns as they head back to the bargaining table.

“These [memorandums of understanding] will be critical in terms of maintaining our safety,” she said.

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