Monroe teachers urge district to pause further reopening

The school board there is moving forward with a plan to bring first-graders back on campuses on Nov. 16.

MONROE — Teachers in Monroe public schools are urging district leaders to pause their plan to allow first-grade students back into classrooms this month.

Starting Nov. 16, the district intends to provide students with two days of in-person instruction and three days of remote learning each week. Under the hybrid schedule, students in each class are to be split into two groups that will attend on different days.

On Thursday, the leader of the Monroe Education Association said that while teachers “overwhelmingly” want students back in classrooms, they are concerned the district is not adequately prepared to do so safely.

Robyn Hayashi, president of the 366-member association, said the union has been unable to forge an agreement with the district on a host of issues, such as how to maintain six feet of physical distance between students and teachers in classrooms, common spaces and during recess.

And there were unresolved matters surrounding sanitizing of classrooms and student restrooms; isolation and quarantine of students and staff if there were a COVID-19 exposure on campus; and ensuring there is ample personal protective equipment, she said.

“Educators are alarmed at the speed that the district is planning to bring students back to school buildings despite the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in our community,” she said. “Before more students return to classrooms, the district must work with educators to ensure we have a safe, transparent and collaborative plan.”

Union and district officials have met roughly twice a week since July to craft agreements around remote instruction and the process that would be followed while creating and implementing a hybrid instructional model.

On Sept. 8, the two parties signed a memorandum of agreement on how grades would be given, attendance would be taken and other aspects of providing instruction during the pandemic. But an accord on how the transition is handled has eluded them.

The Monroe School District began the school year with all students in distance learning and plans to reopen in stages, in line with safety protocols issued by the state Department of Health and recommendations of the Snohomish Health District. Last month, preschool, kindergarten and small groups of students with the highest needs returned for in-person instruction.

On Wednesday, Superintendent Justin Blasko laid out the district’s approach online in a letter to the community. On Nov. 10, he will answer questions from families in webinars at 5 p.m. in English and at 6 p.m. in Spanish.

“While we know that the best learning environment for our students is in our schools, we are welcoming students back into our schools in small increments with extreme caution as the health, safety, and well-being of our school community remains our number one priority,” he wrote.

He also sent a separate letter to staff Wednesday.

“I firmly believe that this slow and intentional shift to in-person learning will benefit our students and our families. We will continue to implement this model with the utmost attention to student and staff safety by aligning our actions and behaviors with our Safety Plan,” he wrote.

State health officials drew up parameters linking the pace of school re-openings with the prevalence of coronavirus. The parameters say limited in-person classes for elementary and special education students can occur even when a county has more than 75 COVID cases per 100,000 residents for a two-week period.

Snohomish County was in that range as the school year began. Already, several school districts have welcomed special needs students as well as kindergarten and some lower grades back onto campus.

Case counts are now rising. The two-week tally ending Oct. 31 was 126 new infections per 100,000 residents. On Wednesday, the county reported 182 new COVID cases, the most in a single day.

Dr. Chris Spitters, the county public health officer, on Oct. 20 gave districts additional guidance, telling them that they could continue limited in-person learning as part of their reopening plans if they so chose.

“These recommendations are a ceiling for what’s permissible, but not the floor. Each school and family needs to make decisions on what is best for them,” Spitters said at the time.

On Thursday, he said he has no concerns with Monroe bringing in first-graders as long as it is following all state health requirements, including daily screening for symptoms, masks, physical distancing, thorough disinfection and sanitation, and optimized ventilation.

“Thus far, the community-wide increase in COVID-19 transmission has not been linked to transmission in schools but rather has been driven by transmission in private social gatherings where masks are not being worn and in some workplaces with social distancing or other prevention deficits,” Spitters said in an email.

Schools conducting in-person learning with a hybrid approach and which have requisite prevention measures in place “are deemed unlikely to experience uncontrolled transmission, nor are they likely to exacerbate community-based transmission,” he said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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