Seattle Education Association: Childcare Is High-Risk Work in the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Seattle Education Association: Childcare Is High-Risk Work in the COVID-19 Pandemic.
As rank-and-file educators in the Seattle Education Association and Seattle Public Schools, we are writing to challenge the expectation that our colleagues volunteer to provide childcare for first-responders and healthcare workers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are deeply committed to promoting the wellbeing of our students to the extent possible through remote support and learning. We likewise recognize the vital importance of our state offering childcare services to frontline healthcare workers. Nevertheless, we reject the expectation that high-risk services be provided by school district employees who aren’t trained and certified childcare providers. Instead we believe that state-certified, unionized childcare providers in unions like SEIU 925 should be offered the opportunity to work these jobs with hazard pay and extensive protections. We call on our union to fulfill its stated duty to fight for the safety of its members and to use our collective power to advocate for common good demands that support the wellbeing of our entire community, including healthcare and childcare workers.
In the first six weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, our union’s top leaders remained silent while Washington policymakers undermined the safety of educators, students, and the broader community. By the time Superintendent Juneau closed Seattle Public Schools on March 11th, there were already 168 confirmed cases in Washington, and researchers estimated that the actual number was upwards of 1,000. Moreover, when Governor Inslee closed Washington schools on March 12th, our union’s leaders failed to challenge his expectation that districts provide childcare for first responders and health professionals. Rather than calling for a fully-funded, statewide plan to provide childcare for healthcare workers in a way that values this high-risk work, SEA and WEA leaders accepted an unfunded mandate that ensured a haphazard system with widespread safety and labor issues.
Since schools were closed, Seattle Education Association leadership has been busy negotiating what educators’ work might look like during the closure period. To their credit, SEA’s leaders have stated that their focus has been on the safety and economic security of the union’s membership. While we feel that our union should also advance common good demands, we agree with this focus. We also appreciate the efforts that union leaders have made toward democracy and transparency by initiating a survey to collect member feedback on educators’ roles during the closure period as well as a virtual Representative Assembly to hear feedback from members. Likewise, we recognize the efforts leaders made to ensure ongoing pay and benefits for most SEA members, as well as protecting the autonomy of educators to design remote learning that is appropriate for their students.
As engaged members of this union, however, we were dismayed to learn that leadership agreed to a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the school district that does not fully protect the safety and economic security of its members. Briefly, this agreement fails to provide pay and benefits to the majority of substitute educators and hourly workers. It also allows the district to determine who is an essential worker and who has the right to telecommute, rather than firmly stating these guidelines. (Since this petition was published, members learned that the Superintendent's power to decide who is an essential worker could include assigning any SPS employee childcare responsibilities.) Likewise, it includes no additional measures to support those employees who are determined to be essential, such as hazard pay or aggressive safety measures that go beyond the inadequate protocols mandated by U.S. public health agencies.
We were further dismayed to learn on March 31 that the union’s leadership was supporting the district’s initiative to request volunteers from SPS staff to run childcare sites throughout the district. In a letter signed “SEA Governance Team,” union leaders stated that they “support this call to action” and are negotiating safety guidelines and working conditions for volunteers at these sites. They further referenced the safety guidelines for childcare centers suggested on the Public Health-Seattle and King County, which are unsurprisingly weak given the same public health department never suggested that schools be closed.
Early childhood education is one of the highest-risk professions for contracting COVID-19, with close proximity and frequent exposure to illnesses. This “call to action” asks educators to take on these risks while working with the children of medical professionals, who are themselves at great risk given the failure of our for-profit system and government to provide adequate PPE for healthcare workers. While no one in an identified “high-risk group” should be placed in a classroom in this context, no educator is in a low-risk group. Research on U.S. cases suggests that 40% of hospitalized patients are between the ages of 20 and 54. Other research suggests that the case fatality rate for COVID-19 patients between the ages of 20 and 29 is over 33 times the case fatality rate for influenza patients in the same age group. We know of colleagues - teachers and administrators - in districts across the country who have already died of COVID-19 even though they were in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. This is high-risk work even for those who are not in high-risk categories, and it should be openly recognized and treated as such.
To be clear, aggressive safety measures should be put into place for anyone caring for groups of children in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. These include free, accessible testing for childcare workers and students; a system to document and report cases within childcare sites; protective gear including soap, sanitizer, gloves, and fabric face masks; spacious, sanitized classrooms with no more than four students; frequent temperature checks; and extensive paid leave in the case of a worker or their family member becoming sick. But no amount of protocols will change the fact that this is high-risk work that encourages community transmission.
While we believe that these protections and more should be put into place for childcare providers supporting frontline workers, it is important to recognize the impossibility of fully mitigating these risks. Children cannot be consistently kept six feet apart from each other and, even if they could, evidence suggests that COVID-19 lives in the air for hours and on surfaces for days. Likewise, temperature and symptom checks will not prevent contagion given the fact that asymptomatic people are driving the COVID-19 outbreak and that children are disproportionately likely to have mild or no symptoms. Childcare workers deserve hazard pay to recognize these risks.
In agreeing to this MOA, the SEA Governance Team is allowing the state and district to haphazardly place the burden of high-risk work on its members, in addition to asking them to completely transform their work for remote learning in a single week. They are counting on their majority-women, caring-profession members to volunteer for this “call to action” without adequate protections or support.
Instead, we call on our union leaders to live up to their promise to fight for the economic security and safety of their members. They should engage SEA members in negotiations in a democratic and transparent way. They should listen to members, who have been clear in their expectations of remote work and safety protections. They should counter the Superintendent, the Mayor, and Governor’s expectations by demanding this crucial work be carried out by state-certified, unionized childcare workers, in small settings with safety protections that far exceed Public Health’s protocols. They should demand that all essential education workers be given protective gear, hazard pay, free testing and medical care, small classes, and extensive paid leave.
As a union, we have the power to protect our members’ health and well-being, which this MOA fails to do. But we can also use our power to advance common good demands that extend far beyond the teacher contract: paid leave, free and accessible testing, Medicare for All, equitable financial relief, rent and mortgage freezes, increased ventilator and mask production using the Defense Production Act, PPE and hazard pay for healthcare workers, hazard pay and protective gear for other essential workers, mass decarceration, release of ICE detainees, debt relief, and housing for all. Social justice unions in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Massachusetts have put many of these demands at the forefront of their work at this time, as well as standing up for the rights of their members. We can do this, too.
As a union, our “call to action” should not be to volunteer our fellow members for high-risk work. Instead, our call to action should be to democratically fight for the health and financial security of our members and our entire community, including negotiating a new MOA with the school district.
Social Equity Educators and the Undersigned