Monroe teachers vote against in-person first grade classes

First-graders were to start a hybrid schedule on Monday, but teachers say the district is not ready.

UPDATE: The Monroe School District Board of Directors has delayed the start of in-person classes for first-grade students to Tuesday.

MONROE — After a union vote, teachers with the Monroe School District said they won’t be resuming in-person classes for first graders Monday due to an alarming spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Snohomish County.

The district said Saturday, however, that it continues to talk with teachers, so the union’s vote might not have been the last word on what happens Monday.

The district had intended to provide first-grade students with two days of in-person instruction and three days of remote learning each week. Under the hybrid schedule, students in each class were to be split into two groups that would attend on different days.

After the Friday night vote, the Monroe Education Association called the plan premature and a violation of an agreement made with teachers in September.

“We’re still hearing loud and clear from our members that the district is not ready yet for students to return,” said Robyn Hayashi, president of the 366-member association.

According to a news release from the union, teachers struck a deal with Superintendent Justin Blasko earlier Friday to delay returning to in-person classes. But as of Saturday morning, the school board had yet to pick up the matter.

If an agreement isn’t reached by Nov. 30, the union warned, teachers will meet again to decide next steps. That could include a district-wide work stoppage.

District spokesperson Tamara Krache said on Saturday that school leaders were continuing to meet with the union this weekend about issues related to the hybrid schedule. The district’s website still indicated on Saturday afternoon that first graders would return to school on Monday.

Under those circumstances, it wasn’t clear Saturday what parents of first-graders should expect on Monday.

Friday’s union vote does not affect kindergartners or special needs students, who already have been meeting in-person.

Hayashi said Monroe teachers had been unable to forge an agreement with the district as to how to maintain six feet of physical distance between students and teachers in classrooms, common spaces and during recess. There also were unresolved matters surrounding sanitizing 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.

The Monroe district has published a “Safety Plan” for returning to in-person learning, following guidelines set forth by health authorities.

Local and state public health experts have said it’s OK to resume in-person instruction for elementary students with a hybrid schedule and the proper safety protocols, like wearing a mask, screening students and staff for symptoms, and spacing kids six feet apart.

“Some want much more in-person learning than is occurring, and others much less. I have no data or words to offer that can close that gap,” Dr. Chris Spitters, the county health officer, said in a statement called “Give Thanks, Not COVID,” released on Friday.

“What I can tell you is that current countermeasures in place in our K-12 schools here and elsewhere appear to be working to prevent transmission in those settings,” Spitters wrote. “The Washington State Department of Health and OSPI,” the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, “also continue to support the gradual, phasing in of limited in-person learning for young students and children with special needs — even in the current environment of high transmission in communities.”

Prior to the new surge in cases, several districts in the county had already brought elementary students back to campuses with a hybrid schedule.

Since then, there have been 44 cases linked to K-12 schools in the county — 28 among staff, 14 among students and two among visitors, according to the Snohomish Health District.

None of the outbreaks has led to uncontrolled or widespread transmission, the health district said.

Public health officials always have said cases will pop up in schools if students return. But safety measures can prevent the virus from spreading from students to staff, or vice versa.

Since kindergartners began meeting, the Monroe School District has seen one positive case in schools, Krache said in an email. The class involved was quarantined, and no other positives were found.

Another class was quarantined after a potential COVID exposure, but there were no positive test results.

Both cohorts have been back in school for weeks. So far, there is no evidence of the virus spreading through a classroom, Krache said.

Another possible COVID exposure was reported in the past week, and a cohort is quarantining, she said.

A recent study by the state Department of Health shows that safety measures greatly reduce the risk of transmission in schools.

“The report supports our guidance that full in-person learning is not wise in places where COVID-19 transmission levels remain high,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for the state’s COVID-19 response. “However, the findings of this modeling indicate that it is possible to carefully resume some in-person learning for some students, especially younger students, while keeping the risk of transmission in our schools relatively low if strong health and safety measures are in place.”

However, the county’s largest districts, Everett Public Schools and the Edmonds School District, are delaying their phased reopenings amid the surge in cases.

Previous guidance from the state has said it’s unsafe to bring elementary students back to school if a county is reporting more than 75 COVID cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks. In Snohomish County, that figure is now nearly 200.

“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,” Monroe Superintendent Blasko wrote in a letter to the community last week.

During a Monroe School Board meeting on Monday, Greg Burns, the district’s director for safety and risk management, noted the state is planning to revise guidance on larger case counts. In a public address this week, Gov. Jay Inslee urged people to rethink Thanksgiving plans, hinting that further restrictions could be imminent.

As of Saturday, nearly 11,000 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Snohomish County. Of those, 247 people have died.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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