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Bellevue School District and teachers deadlocked over return to in-person classes

Teachers want the district to pause the return to in-person learning until they can be vaccinated. Second-graders returned this week with substitute teachers.

BELLEVUE, Wash — After two days of negotiations, teachers and administrators in the Bellevue School District have not reached an agreement on returning to classrooms as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

This week, the district brought 775 second-graders back to their classrooms for partial in-person learning. But they were greeted by substitute teachers. 

Their regular teachers largely stayed home because of continued concerns over coronavirus. The teachers voted this week to not return to in-person classrooms until all of them have the opportunity to be vaccinated.

"We want to do what is best for our county and for the health and safety of not only our members but also the families and the community that we serve," second-grade teacher Kyle Reimergartin said.

In December, teachers agreed, in principle, to return to their classrooms at some point, but a lot has changed since then.

A vaccine initially thought to be widely available by now is not. A new, more infectious COVID-19 variant has emerged. And Washington is seeing record deaths and hospitalizations. 

The union claims administrators announced their plan without any input from teachers.

Educators are asking the district to pause the reopening until they can be assured they will all be able to receive a vaccine.

"We want to make sure we don't contribute to overloading the hospitals and making our cases go up," Reimergartin said. "A lot of educators are really worried about their own families."

Bellevue has had 800 special education and daycare students in classrooms since September. The district says there have been zero COVID-19 cases.

"Our safety protocols are working – small groups, face coverings, physical distancing and ventilation," Superintendent Ivan Duran told parents in a message posted to the website.

Administrators plan to add 1,400 more elementary school students by Feb. 1.

Negotiations broke down Thursday when the district took teachers to court, asking a King County judge to essentially force them back into the classroom. That request was denied.

Labor attorney Aaron Rocke said that could give teachers an advantage as negotiations continue.

"It turns out continuing to strive for a negotiated agreement would've been better off. It looks like the teachers won this interim round."

Rocke is also a Bellevue parent and says pressure has been put on administrators to get kids back on campus.

The Bellevue Education Association's members met Friday, and announced that teachers will continue to "stay the course" and continue to conduct classes remotely through asynchronous work.

Bargaining between the district and the teachers is scheduled to continue Saturday and Sunday.