Evergreen Public Schools reaches deal with teachers for online instruction

The deal allows teachers to work from home, unless one of their students needs some in-person education

VANCOUVER — William Bleville woke up Thursday morning wondering if he’d end up spending his weekend helping Evergreen Public School’s 1,800 certificated teachers prepare for a strike.

By Thursday evening, he was breathing a huge sigh of relief.

“Any day you’re not planning for a strike is a good day,” Bleville, the president for the Evergreen Education Association said when reached via telephone.

Evergreen Public Schools district headquarters. File photo
Evergreen Public Schools district headquarters. File photo

While most of Clark County’s school districts have reached an understanding with their teachers about how the upcoming online-only start to the new school year will go, things got a little tense in the county’s largest district.

The district plan allows for groups of up to five kindergarten students in a building at once, as early as Sept. 10, with other grade levels being allowed to have small groups come in by Sept. 21.

“These are special ed kids, those who maybe just didn’t have the resources to access the online learning in the springtime,” Bleville says. “And so the idea was we would be bringing in these small groups to work with teachers when it’s safe.”

A letter sent to staff on Aug. 18 read, “certificated employees will be required to report to the worksite during their regularly scheduled work hours.”

“The original model was all of the teachers were going to come back and teach in their empty classrooms,” said Bleville, “just in case they would be on call to meet with these small groups.”

That deal was agreed to in principle by the union’s bargaining team, which included Bleville and a Washington Education Association representative on Aug. 14, but rejected by the executive board following the district’s letter.

“It’s an unfortunate situation, in that probably trust is impacted somewhat,” said District Superintendent Mike Merlino at a Board of Directors meeting on Tuesday, noting that his office and the board had received dozens of letters from educators and parents, expressing concern over the requirement that teachers return to a physical building.

Evergreen Public Schools Superintendent Mike Merlino speaks at a Board of Directors meeting in June, 2019. Photo by Mike Schultz
Evergreen Public Schools Superintendent Mike Merlino speaks at a Board of Directors meeting in June, 2019. Photo by Mike Schultz

“The district’s plan and beliefs are around nothing more than trying to serve our students,” said Merlino. “It’s not a question of trusting our teaching staff. It’s not a question of ‘we need to have our staff in our buildings so that the principals can supervise or manage them.’ Couldn’t be further from the truth.”

The concern raised by many parents was the potential risk caused by having dozens, or even hundreds of staff members at schools during the work day. Allowing educators to work from home if they could do so adequately, they argued, makes everyone safer.

“It’s how much physical spacing do we have? And how long are we together? Those are the two factors that seem to be contributing to the spread,” said Bleville. “And so any way that we can reduce either those factors, either by the number or by the duration of time, it’s helpful to make sure we bring down the probability to a manageable level.”

The compromise reached Thursday will allow teachers who wish to work from home to do so, while providing a 48-hour window of notice if one of their students needs to schedule in-person educational time with them.

“If they’re able to provide the same service at home with their own equipment, and if they can do it successfully, they should be able to do it from home,” Bleville said. “Our teachers are always going to be there for kids who need us, and we’re going to go in and give that in-person instruction as they need it.”

Students needing help would not come to a physical building every day, so most teachers likely would only need to come to their classroom once or twice a week in order to meet with the small groups.

“We know the connection between students, families and staff is critical. We all are working to safely and equitably find ways to ensure the best learning experience. We are pleased that we will be able to start ramping up in-person instruction,” said Merlino in a statement put out by the district. “We also know that parents will appreciate the consistency of set schedules and easy access to their student’s teachers and staff. This agreement provides both.”

As staff report to buildings, and small groups of students come in for instruction and services, the district says it will have stringent health and safety guidelines in place, including the wearing of masks, health screenings, physical distancing, handwashing and exclusion of individuals exhibiting any of the COVID-19 symptoms. The district also has provided all employees with options if they, or family members, fall in high-risk categories or have childcare needs.The agreement also outlines the process for the following local Clark County health guidelines, as COVID-19 cases decrease, for transitioning to a hybrid learning model. 

“While the start of the school year will not be traditional, the one thing we know we can count on is the positive connection and instruction our students rely on as delivered by our qualified and enthusiastic staff. We know this will happen-regardless of it is remotely or in-person,” said Merlino.

The district may now be in a bit of scramble mode between today and next Tuesday. Merlino noted during this week’s board meeting that some of their training for the upcoming school year had to wait until the MOU had been signed.

Evergreen Public Schools contributed to this report.