School district, teachers reach tentative agreement to bring more students back to classrooms

Superintendent Gustavo Balderas

After weeks of negotiations, the Edmonds School District announced Friday its bargaining team struck a tentative agreement with teachers that would bring more students back to classrooms by the end of March.

In a letter to families, District Superintendent Gustavo Balderas said the district’s bargaining team has reached a tentative agreement with the Edmonds Education Association — which represents the district’s certified teaching staff — to open classrooms to kindergarten, first- and second-grade students as well additional special education and early childhood programs. According to Balderas, this Stage 2 re-entry plan will begin March 22 with second graders.

Stage 2 offers in-person learning in the A/B hybrid model, with students attending in-person either Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays. 

The full letter can be read here and includes start dates and times for students returning to the classroom.

Negotiations have been ongoing since early January, with the district and union working to reach an agreement over working conditions. In a separate statement, Balderas thanked the bargaining teams for their long meeting hours and the district’s “incredibly resilient” students.

“Remote learning is not easy, but each day they impress us with their flexibility, compassion and innovation,” Balderas said. “These are our future leaders and I am beyond proud and impressed by the way they face and overcome incredible challenges each day.

“No matter the learning environment — remote or in-person, we remain committed to providing a supportive environment for our families, students and staff.”

Before students return to classrooms, families are being asked to let district staff know if their student intends to return to in-person learning or stay remote. However, Balderas also said that all Stage 2 students will begin with their new class on March 22, including the students and staff staying fully remote.

Balderas added that the district will do a gradual launch of in-person learning starting with second grade. As some students wait to begin in-person learning in Stage 2, they will still start with their new class remotely on March 22, until their scheduled time to begin in-person learning.

The district plans to expand in-person opportunities for our 3rd-12th grade students with specific needs.

“We will continue to provide updates to families as these plans develop,” Balderas said.

The topic of returning students has been a contentious one. Staff and parents weighed in during last week’s school board meeting, citing — on the one hand — isolated teens’ mental health and — on the other hand — worries about students and staff spreading the coronavirus.

Edmonds School District Executive Director of Student Learning Rob Baumgartner (far right) responds to a question on Feb. 9.

In her submitted comments read by Board President Deborah Kilgore at the Feb. 9 meeting, Cedar Way Elementary School first-grade teacher Kristi Pihl said it is still not safe for students and staff to be back in  classrooms. Though remote learning might not work for all, Pihl said the same could be said for in-person learning.

“There is no universal agreement that it is safe for kids and staff to be in person,” she said. “Instead, (school district) officials are saying having kids in-person is more important than the health of our staff, students and families.”

In spite of efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the district has still had instances of COVID-19 on campuses since November. According to Pihl, returning more students and teachers to campuses would only lead to more cases and more disruptions to learning.

“Interruptions to in-person schooling will happen when staff or students get coronavirus,” she said. “Don’t force us back now — instead add support for kids who are struggling.”

However, some of those commenting favored returning to in-person learning. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, Edmonds resident Kim Baca said there has been a significant decrease in teens’ mental health during remote learning. Citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Baca said 25.5% of young people ages 18 to 24 have considered suicide in the last 30 days. Additionally, Baca said 24.7% have started or increased substance abuse to deal with stress.

There is currently no information available for those under 18 years old, but Baca said between April and October 2020 the percentage of mental health related emergency room visits went up 24% for children ages 5 to 11 years old and 31% for 12- to 17-year-olds.

“We have seen the tragic reality of these statistics play out in our own community,” she said.

Weighing the pros and cons, Mountlake Terrace Elementary teacher Maria Scott said that although she sometimes struggles to serve each student in her diverse classroom, remote learning offers some advantages when teaching. For example, Scott said teaching phonics to her students — two of whom are Spanish-speaking and seven who are English learners — is easier online than it would be in a classroom with a mask on.

“I can get close to the camera and really let students see my mouth and the shapes I’m making for each letter, students are better able to mimic the shape and create the sounds on their own,” she said.

Peter Evans — who has a kindergarten student in the district — suggested the board revisit the plan now that new information regarding the coronavirus has come out since the hybrid model’s creation. Instead, he suggested the district consider sending students back to schools for half days.

“A half-day schedule would allow students to have interaction with their teachers and peers four days a week,” he said. 

According to Evans, a half-day model would lessen the burden on teachers by allowing students time during the independent learning half of the day to read, work on online assignments and have music/P.E./online library classes.

During its school re-entry update last week, staff updated the board on the new COVID-19 dashboard available on the district’s website. The site launched last month and collects self-reported health data – including confirmed COVID-19 positive cases — from anyone entering any of the district buildings — students, staff or community members. The site also collects the same data for student athletes attending outdoor conditions sessions.

District spokesperson Harmony Weinberg said making the information available was part of the district’s efforts to be more transparent. She added that since January, more than 30,000 of these “attestation” forms — which are used to collect health data — have been collected and nine confirmed cases have been reported.

“It’s important to note the number of cases is based on the personal account of a student, staff or call directly from (Snohomish) Health District,” she said.

Under Stage 1 of the district’s re-entry plan, around 150 students enrolled in special education programs have returned to in-person learning. After the success of Edmonds Hub — a remote learning site that offers in-person services to McKinney-Vento students — the district last week began offering high school students in the English Learner program in-person support at Edmonds-Woodway, Meadowdale and Mountlake Terrace high schools. The program expanded to include middle school students this week.

Now, the district wants to open a learning hub for kindergarten students on the former Woodway High School campus, although district staff have not announced when the hub would open.

In other business during the Feb. 9 meeting, the board received an update on the district’s visual and performing arts programs and how they are handling the remote school year. Though it’s challenging, Manager Visual & Performing Arts Manager Scott Barnes said staff has been working on ways to support students’ social emotional needs through the arts.

“In schools, (the arts) nurture creation in a welcoming school environment,” he said.

In his presentation, Barnes updated the board on the technology being used by students in the arts during remote learning. For example, sixth- through 12th-grade students use programs like Soundtrap to hold practice jam sessions together, or Smartmusic for solo practice and student assessments. 

Online programs have also allowed students to continue to showcase their talents. Last semester, students held solo performances and a recital for parents and families.

“I had the joy of being a part of some of these and not only seeing the growth in student musicianship, but also the family engagement and the celebration of that,” Barnes said.

According to Barnes, the biggest challenge for visual arts was getting supplies to students. At the secondary level, the amount of art supplies available is based on the amount student fees paid, he said. 

Per guidance from the state health officials and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), Barnes said live performances will soon be able to be held with restrictions in place. Restrictions include limiting each performance to 30 minutes with air changes between performances, a minimum of 9 feet of physical distancing and no groups larger than 15 students.

“As we look at bringing students back, they will have the opportunity within these guidelines to sing or play an instrument,” he said.

Other recommendations include outfitting student musicians and their instruments with personal protective equipment (PPE). Barnes said performers would wear face masks with slits for their mouth pieces and a bell covering to reduce the amount of aerosol in the air to the same levels of a student speaking in a classroom with a regular face mask. Vocalists would also wear a special mask designed to allow them to sing without expelling any aerosol than when regularly speaking.

Under unfinished business, the board unanimously voted to revise its policy regarding  policy regarding nutrition, health and physical education. The policy title has also changed, replacing the word “fitness” with “education.”

Aiming to provide all students with adequate time to eat in-school meals, the board voted to amend the policy to ensure 20 minutes of seated lunch, and to schedule elementary recess before lunch.

Other unfinished business items voting to approve updates to the boards policies regarding alternative learning experience course, sexual harassment, opioid overdose reversal on campuses and limiting immigration enforcement on school grounds.

Prior to voting on the final agenda item, Director Gary Noble repeated concerns about language in the proposal that would prohibit staff from asking students what country they were born in. During the last board meeting, Noble said it was often a point of pride in schools across the district to celebrate the counties their students were from with displays.

Noble also said that students are asked their country of origin when enrolling in the district to determine if they should enroll in the English learners program and asked if that would no longer be the case.

In response, Superintendent Gustavo Balderas said staff would look to OSPI for guidance and make revisions as necessary. Also, Assistant Superintendent Dana Geaslen said the question is currently optional and families are not required to answer it to enroll in the English learners program.

However, Noble insisted that if the board approved the proposed amendment as written, including the question on the survey would violate the district’s own policy.

“Your policy says…’may review but shall not inquire about requests,’ so even if they’re not required to fill it out, you’re still asking it,” he said. “I’m uncomfortable with a  policy that’s inconsistent with what we’re doing.”

Director Ann McMurray said she was comfortable with the way the proposal was written and pointed out that the policy referred to district staff and faculty and that the survey was an OSPI document.

“This is OSPI doing something, it’s not the district independently asking for that information,” she said. “I understand it’s a rocky area, but I think that given that the problem isn’t with us, it’s with OSPI catching up I’m okay OK with approving it as written.”

During new business, the board held a first reading on a proposed revision to the district’s Associated Student Bodies (ASB) policy that would waive fees for students from low-income families.

In 2020, the Washington State Legislature passed House Bill 1660, which aims to increase participation in extracurricular activities by addressing barriers to extracurricular activities, such as ASB fees. To bring the district into state compliance, the board will vote at its next business meeting to waive fees for students who qualify for free-and-reduced meal programs.

The board also held a first reading for a proposed board policy to provide employees with federal leave for certain health and military reasons. It includes broad guidelines as there are specific provisions for these leaves in collective bargaining agreements and memorandum of understanding the district has with its employees.

–By Cody Sexton

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