Tacoma Public School’s Negligence Results in Teachers Taking Action

On February 23rd, 2021, Safe Return- Tacoma (108 rank and file members of the Tacoma Education Association from all grades and building roles) emaled a letter to Carla Santorno, Superintendent at Tacoma Public Schools (TPS), Shannon Ergun, President of the Tacoma Education Association (TEA, their teachers union), as well as to TPS School Board Members: Lisa Keating, Enrique Leon, Korey Strozier, Andrea Cobb, and Elizabeth Bonbright. The goal of this letter was to ensure a safe return to Tacoma school buildings for students and staff, and it included a clear list of demands:

  • First, Tacoma Public Schools will ensure that all safety protocols recommended by health care authorities (based on the best available data at the time) are strictly followed.
  • Second, schools return to in-person learning only when the entire community has had access to vaccinations and case counts within the Puget Sound Region are below the numbers recommended for in-person learning by national, state, and county health authorities.
  • Third, remote teaching/learning will be a choice for all building-based employees and TPS students for the remainder of the 2020–21 school year.
  • Fourth, staff who have been working in buildings during the 2020–21 school year will be offered additional, retroactive hazard-pay compensation.

The letter continues on to break-down the demands and further explain what their goal is.

The rationale behind our demands are as follows:

  1. TPS will ensure that all safety protocols recommended by health care authorities (based on the best available data at the time) are strictly followed.
    • In the Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools through Phased Mitigation there are specific recommendations for cohorting students to ensure safety. This cohorting model is not possible at the 6–12 level and is compromised in K-5 during pull-out services. The CDC defines Cohorts as:

“A cohort or pod is a distinct group that stays together throughout the entire school day during in-person learning, or over the course of any pre-determined period of time, so that there is minimal or no interaction between groups.”

  • The contact tracing and notification plans from TPS are flawed and not transparent. According to the CDC, in the event of a student testing positive for COVID-19, the Person of Contact (building COVID supervisor), “…communicates the possible exposure to the teacher(s), staff, and parent(s), guardian(s) or caregiver(s) of students in the school.” The TPS website states that contact tracing notification will only be given to community/building staff if, “… a close contact has spent 15 or more minutes over a 24-hour period within six feet of the confirmed case.” This policy means the district will not inform students, teachers, or staff of
    possible exposure or positive cases within their shared spaces
    . The assumption is that all people in buildings are 6ft apart unless the positive individual specifically indicates otherwise. All people who share spaces with a positive COVID case deserve to, and must, be informed by their building COVID supervisor of the positive case in their cohort. Informing someone they were potentially exposed on a given day is not a HIPPA violation, and it is what we need the district to do.
    • Despite students and employees moving between classrooms throughout the school day, TPS is only requiring custodians to disinfect classroom surfaces at the beginning and end of each school day. The cleaning and disinfecting protocols released by TPS are not in line with CDC guidelines and can’t properly keep shared areas safe from contamination.
    • TPS has not yet created modified emergency procedures for in-person learning during COVID. This means there are no specific plans outlining how to maintain 6ft distance during a lockdown or any other non-COVID
    related emergency. This lack of an emergency plan puts staff and students in heightened danger.
    According to the CDC, airborne transmission of COVID-19 happens when there’s, “enclosed spaces…, prolonged exposure to respiratory particles… and inadequate ventilation or air handling”. There are learning spaces in TPS with no windows, or windows that don’t open. There are aging HVAC systems throughout the district. There is no scheduled outdoors time for secondary students. Elementary students are eating indoors maskless and plans for socially distanced meals have not been disclosed to secondary staff/faculty
    • Building safety plans are created by staff and led by a principal. Principals and building staff are unqualified for this task as they have no medical training to truly interpret or enforce these CDC protocols (apart from the school nurse). In addition, they have other full time jobs which are compromised by the responsibility of ensuring this extensive guide is strictly implemented. The Covid Supervisor position is a full time role that should be held by a person qualified to implement and ensure the CDC recommendations. Principals and staff can be subject matter experts
    helping to inform these plans, but not solely responsible for them as they already have full time roles (and then some).
  • There is not a dedicated, full time school nurse in each school building while students are in-person, and many school nurses split their time between buildings.
  • Many other CDC guidelines are not being strictly followed, planned for, or implemented. In addition, it could be argued these guides are already outdated as we face multiple new variants around the world.

2. Schools return to in-person learning when:

A. The entire community has had access to vaccinations, and

  • According to the CDC, 78% of people under 21 years of age who’ve died from COVD-19 are Black and/or Indigenous.
  • Less than 5% (this was the statistic at the time of writing the letter last week, as I am publishing this to my Medium a week later, Washington is currently sitting at 8%) of people in Washington State have received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • According to the CDC, Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) are more likely to receive a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, be hospitalized, and/or die from COVID-19 than white people, and yet vaccinations in WA state have not been administered equitably to BIPOC communities.
  • There are known long-term health effects people who’ve
    recovered from COVID-19 experience, as well as unknown long-term health effects that are being actively investigated by the CDC.

B. Case counts within the Puget Sound Region are below the numbers recommended for in-person learning by national, state, and county health authorities.

  • The current case count numbers on the Pierce county Health Department site exclude JBLM numbers and ignore neighboring King county as being part of our ‘community’. These case numbers do not reflect the entire community given the commuting work population of this region.
  • TPS stated that schools, once back to in-person, will not
    return to remote instruction.
    If/when a COVID-19 outbreak happens in a school or in the district, there is no plan to return to remote instruction.
  • According to the WA Department of Health (DOH), the “UK Variant” of COVID-19, which is more easily transmitted, has been detected in WA state. There is no data to prove effectiveness of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines against multiple variants. This means it’s imperative we keep numbers as low as possible and vaccinate people as quickly as possible in order to prevent more mutations.
  • The CDC is currently investigating the link between COVID-19 and Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), which is a condition that can kill our students.

3. Remote teaching/learning will be a choice for all building-based employees and TPS students for the remainder of the 2020–21 school year

  • The current choice between TOL and hybrid is not equitable
  • The amount of live instruction a student receives in the hybrid model is
    significantly lower
    than what they were receiving in the remote model
  • TOL is not an option for students who want to participate in IB or MYP courses
  • TOL is a non-traditional schooling model that does not meet all students’ needs
  • TOL is not an option for all employees who wish, or need, to remain remote

4. Staff who have been working in buildings during the 2020–21 school year will be offered additional, retroactive hazard-pay compensation.

Michigan hazard pay

Local governments mandating hazard pay

In short, the safety measures currently in place by TPS are not adequate to keep our community safe. Furthermore, students can receive more hours of live instruction in the remote model without putting themselves, the people in their homes, district faculty/staff, and the homes of faculty/staff, in danger of sickness, hospitalization, long term health impacts, or death.

If we as a district are to live our values of “Every Student, Every Day”, then we must create equitable choices, policies, and protocols for our students, families, and employees. As it stands, TPS is not doing this. We demand change in the name of safety for the community of Tacoma.

Ever Vigilant,
Rank and File members of the Tacoma Education Association

Teacher unions in nearby cities have represented educators in talks and negotiations with their school districts to ensure the safety of all parties involved by adhering to COVID safety guidelines, as well as ensuring equity in the decisions being made. It has been brought to my attention that countless teachers have reached out to TEA union leadership, including TEA President Shannon Ergun, but their negligence continues to put the lives of students and teachers at risk. “…[T]hey either don’t even respond to the emails at all, or say something like ‘Well we have a bunch of other teachers eager to get into the classroom, but thank you for sharing your concerns!’” After feeling helpless and at a loss for what to do, 100+ teachers and staff from TPS gathered virtually to discuss what they could do. “Over 100 of us were talking, which is hard to do mind you! We’re all on our own at home. We’re not seeing each other, we’re not running into each other in the staff room or talking in the hallways, so it’s been very hard to organize!” but they still found a way to organize and get together on Zoom to discuss their concerns and brainstorm ways to take action. They explained to me that people who gathered that night were beyond frustrated with union leadership for not advocating for the safety of students and employees, as well as with the district’s hybrid model of in-person teaching and learning. “We decided we needed to do something about it. We decided to take action because literal lives are at stake.” They went on to call their collective of concerned teachers and staff taking action Safe Return- Tacoma so that they could remain anonymous while voicing concerns on social media, to TPS, and to TEA leadership.

Safe Return- Tacoma sent two emails on February 23rd: one to Superintendent Santorno and TPS school board members, and another to TEA President Shannon Ergun. Those emails included the letter with their list of demands and rationales. As of today, March 2nd, Safe Return- Tacoma has still not received any replies. “[We] didn’t even get a recognition of receiving the email, let alone a response. In the emails we sent, we made it very clear that we wanted to work with the union and with the district and that we look forward to working with them; and still, no response. So yeah, there are a lot of teachers who are feeling defeated. Feeling unheard. And really, feeling like they are disposable in the eyes of the district. Feeling like the district and Shannon see us and the kids as disposable. The way they have things set up… it’s BAD!”

So bad, in fact, that many teachers at the secondary level (and likely others) are going to be using their sick leave in order to not be in person because they cannot risk themselves or the people they live with getting sick and/or dying. Ok, well, what about Tacoma Online (TOL), you ask? Yes, it’s true: an online-only option does exist in TPS, and the district is claiming that they will not turn students away if they choose to enroll in TOL. The problem that teachers have applied to transfer to TOL because they cannot risk teaching in-person, and the district denied their appeal to transfer. If the district is turning teachers away, then it would lead one to believe only a certain number of teachers are allowed in the TOL program in order to maintain staffing levels for in-person learning. This leads me to presume that in turn, there is going to be a cap on the number of students admitted, because, “…[T]hey can’t overload a teacher’s roster without paying that teacher more, according to the current contract.” So, if teachers are being denied this option for online-only teaching, why are they then claiming that students will not be turned away? Another concern about TOL is there are many classes that aren’t offered in that program, but are otherwise available in person. “So, you’re then telling any student or teacher who has health conditions that require them to be remote, ‘Because you have these preexisting health conditions, or because you’re trying to quarantine for whatever reason, you don’t get to take the same classes you were taking in-person.’” Another equity issue TOL poses is the fact that it does not offer International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. This is particularly awful for TPS 11th and 12th graders enrolled at Foss, the district’s IB high school. “IB students can earn not only a high school diploma, but also an IB diploma. That diploma can get you entrance into universities all over the world, and even earn you credits at those universities. So, if an IB student has preexisting health conditions, or needs to quarantine and not be in-person for whatever reason, and transfers to TOL, they are forced to give up the opportunity to receive an IB diploma and/or prepare for their IB diploma.” These are only a few reasons why TOL is only an option for some students and teachers.

Adding fuel to this dystopian nightmare, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that allocates $714 million to schools who have plans to reopen classrooms as part of the $2.2 billion statewide relief plan from the federal COVID-19 relief money. This, in turn, causes districts in lower income communities to have an incentive to return to in-person learning, communities that have higher numbers of BIPOC folks, putting the people who live in these communities at greater risk. This only further contributes to the cycle of various marginalized groups being disproportionately affected by COVID.

The heart of this article is based on facts and the opinions and statements from various anonymous members of Safe Return- Tacoma. The collective can only speak to the list of four demands. This article had a very different ending, but Gov. Inslee just announced that teachers, school workers, and licensed childcare employees are now on the list of people who are immediately eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine starting tomorrow 3/3/21. Many teachers and school workers are still in opposition to this as they are able to do their jobs from home and children are able to learn from home, believing the vaccines should be reserved for those who are essential workers and do not have the privilege of working from home.

This is an ongoing story and I will update it as I learn more.