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Seattle and Bellevue schools cancel classes for students Friday due to lack of staff

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 9, 2021

By Monica Velez Seattle Times

The Seattle and Bellevue school districts have canceled classes on Friday for thousands of students in the Puget Sound area, citing staffing problems, substitute shortages and weather concerns as among the reasons to close down.

Seattle Public Schools said in an email sent to families Tuesday that “We are aware of an unusually large number of SPS staff taking leave on Friday, and do not believe we have adequate personnel to open schools with the necessary environment for high-quality learning.” The announcement took many parents by surprise.

As of last week, more than 600 educators had requested a substitute for Friday, a statement from the district said. Because Thursday is Veterans Day, a federal holiday, the Friday school cancellation means a four-day weekend for students and teachers.

“The number of leave requests on a Friday after a federal holiday is indicative of the fatigue our staff and students are experiencing in these months of the return to classroom,” Seattle officials said. “The four-day weekend may offer physical, mental, and emotional restoration.”

Friday’s cancellation was not a work stoppage planned by the Seattle Education Association, but a situation caused by the statewide shortage of substitute teachers, union leaders said in a statement. And filling in for missing staff is more difficult this year because of the extra support needed to meet all COVID-19 safety protocols.

“Educators are stretching themselves to the limit to provide COVID-safe, quality services and learning for all of our students but we cannot succeed without adequate support,” the teachers union statement continued. “The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) needs to hear how the staffing shortages and systemic underfunding of public education is directly impacting our abilities to meet the needs of children in this pandemic.“

Bellevue said it was canceling school Friday because of staffing shortages, “anticipated inclement weather, and COVID-19 restrictions,” according to its website. After-school programs will also be canceled, but athletics will continue as scheduled.

“Some of the creative solutions we have provided in the past with staff shortages, will not work with the COVID-19 restrictions,” Bellevue officials said. “For example, combining classes is not an option at this time.”

Lack of substitutes was also a factor, Bellevue spokesperson Janine Thorn said, and school leaders across the district have had to fill in at schools to provide extra support.

“The impact of that, coupled with Friday becoming a gap day between a holiday and the weekend, led to the challenge we are currently facing,” Thorn said. “Unfortunately, early staffing challenges weren’t available for us to provide more notice to families and we will work on that in the future.”

School districts across the country have also canceled school Friday, and some have also cited shortages in staffing and substitutes. Others said it was a day for students and staff to recharge during what has already been an exhausting year of school thanks to the pandemic. And some schools are closing for the day to vaccinate students.

San Diego Unified School District students have the option of taking Friday off as a mental health day, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. The Associated Press reported a school district in Virginia closed the first week of November over concerns about mental health and burnout.

Chicago Public Schools canceled schools on Friday so students could receive the COVID-19 vaccine, according to nonprofit education newsroom Chalkbeat Chicago.

Staffing shortages have hit other school districts as well. Denver Public Schools had to move three of its schools to remote learning this month and three other districts in the area have had to cancel classes, including on Friday, according to the Denver Post.

Seattle students and staff have repeatedly expressed how overwhelmed they are this year and that feeling has been exacerbated by the extra COVID-19 safety protocols, Seattle School Board President Chandra Hampson said. She called it a “well-deserved” break and she said she stands by the decision, which was made by interim superintendent Brent Jones.

The missed day for Seattle students will be added to the end of the school year, officials said. Bellevue students and staff will make up Friday on Jan. 28.

To address staffing shortages, school districts can expedite two emergency certificates for educators, according to a letter OSPI sent superintendents in late September.

Educators who receive an emergency substitute certificate can teach in any classroom, the letter said. Another option is a conditional certificate, which allows educators to work in specific classrooms.

Hampson said she and some other school board members have been filling in at school sites for recess, lunch and office duty. Other school staff have done the same, and have also earned certifications so they can work in classrooms.

Right at School, a child care program that partners with Bellevue Schools, is able to assist families who need to find child care, officials said. Seattle schools officials and child care partners are also working to help families who need child care, Hampson said. Seattle students can still pick up meals on Friday.

Go to seattleschools.org for a list of times and school buildings meals will be available.

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