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Worker’s Voice: Seattle Music Teacher on Going Back to School

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Written by a 4th and 5th grade Band and Orchestra Teacher (Seattle Public Schools) and Member of Seattle Education Association (personal capacity)

After a school year of social isolation, remote learning, and confusing hybrid teaching models, we are back to being 100% in-person in Seattle Public Schools. I work as an itinerant (traveling) music teacher in seven different elementary schools across the city, and can say with confidence that the criminal underfunding of Seattle Public Schools is on full display now more than ever. 

Being back in person has been a huge sigh of relief for both many parents/families and teachers alike. Last year, many parents had to choose between going to work or taking care of their children while at home, changing their living space into a school space, and were financially burdened with accessing all of the necessary technology for remote learning, if they could afford it at all. Teachers were asked to complete impossible amounts of in-person and online work to accommodate hybrid models, learn and relearn all sorts of technology, and completely reinvent how we teach, with little to no additional support in how to do this. Keeping up with students’ learning and social emotional needs was sometimes impossible. 

I work as an itinerant (traveling) music teacher in seven different elementary schools across the city, and can say with confidence that the criminal underfunding of Seattle Public Schools is on full display now more than ever.

The understandable sigh of relief many parents and teachers are experiencing with the return to school buildings has been coupled with anxiety, aggravation, and fatigue. My school district’s mandate of being “three feet apart when reasonable” is essentially no mandate at all, and it is extremely difficult to manage social distancing at all times. HEPA air filters are being chased down and frantically moved around so that classroom spaces pass safety inspections. A district-wide COVID case tracker has consistently reported increasing cases in the buildings week to week, but little is being done. School administrations have had a year and a half to update building infrastructure, implement cleaning protocols, hire more staff, and reduce class sizes for COVID safety, but instead many of us are returning to unsafe conditions as cases are going up across the country.  

Beyond just COVID concerns, student behavioral challenges are worse than years past, including an uptick in physical violence amongst younger children. It’s no wonder when these kids have not socialized with their peers for months during lockdown. There is a noticeable lag in academic understanding and achievement across grade levels, including in the arts and music. Secretaries are doubling as nurses–during a global pandemic–because medical staffing is so stretched. 

Seattle Public Schools claims to be striving towards an equitable education for all, but by any reasonable standards we are not even close. About 15 of us instrumental music teachers cover all 73 elementary schools in SPS, which by itself demonstrates a real lack of teachers. We have to use a lottery system to choose students who will be able to participate in instrumental music, and many students are cut from the program. Additionally, only about 50 of the 73 elementary schools across the city even have general music classes (singing, dancing, mallet instruments, etc.), which means at some schools my classes are students’ only experience with music. I teach at each school once a week, and see my students for only 25 minutes. 

COVID has only further exacerbated these inequities, including the resources teachers have available to them. As far as my own “classrooms” go, in one school I started the year in a portable (an additional classroom built outside of the main building). I just learned that because students have to be at least three feet apart while sitting, all of the two-student desks must be removed from classrooms and replaced with single student desks. The district is “out of storage,” and so the whole school’s worth of desks are being moved to the portable. It is not yet clear if I have a classroom at all in that school now, and this may happen in another one of the schools I teach at as well. I teach on a stage in a third school, and due to social distancing and increased cafeteria periods, we had to cut the amount of instrumental music classes from four to three. This cut even more students from the program and simultaneously created larger class sizes.

Seattle Public Schools claims to be striving towards an equitable education for all, but by any reasonable standards we are not even close.

All of my colleagues, including administrators, school staff, and teachers, are working overtime, arm in arm, to make sure that this school year runs as smoothly and safely as possible. But ultimately, we as individuals are being asked to problem solve for situations that we didn’t cause. These situations are caused by the relentless attack and defunding of public education in the name of profit over the course of years. As a socialist, I see that these situations are caused by the inherently inequitable and exploitative system of capitalism. 

The district supposedly has $90 million from the CARES act that they are refusing to spend, and this is not uncommon across the country. Why isn’t that money being spent? Our union, and unions across the country, should demand that school boards open the books and start spending that money on resources that we decide and our students desperately need. These resources would include a mass hiring of educators, nurses, and support staff to help kids who are academically behind and traumatized from a year and a half of the pandemic. 

But the funding shouldn’t stop there. Seattle is home to Amazon, Microsoft, Starbucks, and some of the richest people on the planet. No school should have to choose between classroom spaces or storage spaces, between music classes or P.E classes. Resources should not have to be pitted against each other. Instead, all schools should have full-time teaching staff in all subjects, medical and psychological staff, before-and-after school childcare, HEPA filters, COVID-safe buildings, updated infrastructure, healthy meal programs, and much more. Taxing the biggest corporations and the super rich could easily provide for all of the resources needed to provide a quality experience for all students, teachers, and school staff, even during COVID. In fact, in Seattle, we already have the mechanism to do this with the Amazon Tax, which is currently funding affordable housing. Even in cities that aren’t home to the billionaires, a federal tax on corporations could easily fund our country’s public schools.

Teachers and parents shouldn’t have to choose between COVID “safe” remote learning that will be inequitable and jeopardize student learning and teacher/parent sanity, or a “dangerous,” dysfunctional, in-person learning environment. The money and resources are there to provide a safe and sustainable in-person experience for all of us–we just have to go and fight for it. 

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