After weeks of unsuccessful negotiations and threats of legal action, teachers in the Highline School District have agreed to resume in-person instruction starting today, March 11, nearly two weeks after the district originally planned.
The news was announced Tuesday morning by Dr. Susan Enfield, who is the district superintendent.
“I am very happy to share that we have an agreement with our teachers to begin the next phase of hybrid instruction on March 11,” she said in a statement. “The membership of the Highline Education Association, the union that represents our teachers, ratified the agreement Monday night.”
More than two-thirds of the union members voted to approve the district’s plan at the meeting, a district spokesperson said. This is a major shift from the decisions made by union members in recent weeks.
Over the past month, the union has voted several times to postpone the district’s plan for reopening classrooms, with many members saying they’d prefer to wait until receiving their COVID-19 vaccinations.
Initially the district told families in-person instruction would resume on March 1, though the union voted against that plan at a general membership meeting on Feb. 23. Hybrid reopening was postponed indefinitely, then tentatively rescheduled for today, March 11, on the condition that the union approved the plan.
And though teachers did eventually agree to this return date, they were not on board at first. In fact, they voted to reject a March 11 return date at a meeting on March 2, instead offering to return April 19.
At the meeting on Monday, the district’s plan passed with 79 percent of union members voting in favor of reopening classrooms starting today, a sharp increase from last week’s meeting, in which 63 percent of union members voted against the plan, said Sandy Hunt, president of the Highline Education Association, the local teachers union for the district.
Hunt said there were several reasons for this sudden change of heart; one notable factor was the threat of legal action from the district.
“They filed an injunction, and we were set to go to court,” Hunt said. “I was served with papers yesterday before the meeting started. A court date was set for this afternoon. It was a little dramatic.”
She said teachers were told they would face consequences if they didn’t follow the district’s plan for reopening classrooms.
“Teachers were threatened with disciplinary action for not showing up,” said Hunt. “But it wasn’t the whole membership, it was just those slated to show up on Thursday.”
The threat came as a shock to many, she said, especially those who are new to teaching.
“It’s pretty terrifying to a first-year teacher or somebody who hasn’t faced that kind of language before,” Hunt said. “It’s not something you ever expect the district to do.”
On March 4, teachers who had not yet been approved to continue remote teaching were sent an email from the district’s Human Resources department 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.”
This came after a meeting of the Highline School Board the night before where members voted 4-1 in favor of authorizing the district to take legal action against teachers who refused to come into buildings.
In addition to the threat of legal action, Hunt said major changes were made with the bargaining teams between the meetings on March 2 and 8.
“We now have a very solid agreement which allows the individuals who received remote assignments to be protected by the building reps and myself to make sure they have the option to remain in remote mode with their class, should they choose that,” she said. “Or use their sick leave for the month of March until they are fully vaccinated.”
Vaccine access has been a leading concern among teachers over the past month as negotiations between the union and district have continued. Teachers only became eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine last week, thanks to an order from President Joe Biden that prompted states to adjust their rules and prioritize educators.
Ahead of the union’s meeting on Monday, the district offered a one-day vaccination clinic for district staff who are or will be working with students over the next few weeks, Dr. Enfield said in a statement.
“Nearly 1,000 people received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine,” she said. “Nearly every Highline employee on our list to get a vaccination was able to get one, and we will work with anyone who was missed to make sure they are vaccinated. We had enough doses on Sunday to vaccinate many other staff members, as well.”
While this came as a relief to many union members and may have influenced their vote on Monday, not everybody was in favor of returning so soon, Hunt said.
“There are 10 to 15 percent of our members who are concerned about the role of opening schools in the community for increasing the transmission of COVID,” she said. “It’s a bit of a hollow victory, because the opening of schools is not completely accepted by everyone, particularly those most hit by the pandemic and the systemic problems in our society around health care.”
Numerous studies have shown that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts people of color, and a recent study from Pew Research Center 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.”
Hunt anticipates that it will take time to mend the relationship between the district and teachers but is hopeful for the future.
“I’ve committed to substitute teaching on Fridays,” she said, saying she wants to show her members that she fully believes in the safety plans that have been put in place, and it gives her a chance to see them in action.
And while students and teachers begin to re-enter classrooms today for the first time in a year, bargaining between the district and teachers union will continue as the country continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is not the end of the bargain for us, it is ongoing,” Hunt said. “We know the pandemic changes and new needs arise, and that’s what we’ve committed to throughout the year, so we’ll be going through this as we face the opening of secondary schools in the months ahead.”
Under the new hybrid learning plan, students who wish to resume in-person instruction will be allowed to do so starting today, with different grades returning in staggered phases.
Today, pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade students, as well as all students in the Intensive Academic Center will be permitted to return to classrooms, followed by second and third graders on March 22 and students in fourth and fifth grade on April 1, assuming there aren’t any major COVID-19 outbreaks or spikes in case numbers before then.
You can read Dr. Enfield’s full statement on reopening from Tuesday here.