Sunset over Mt. Rainier

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Head Start employees in the Washington state capital area want more flexibility as kids return to the classroom.

Sophia Rychener, a teacher who heads the Federation of Head Start Employees, said some of her union members aren't able to return to the classroom because of their own children's needs - including parents of kids with special needs and older kids who don't have child-care options. Rychener said employees already have experience working from home, and would have to take time off to care for their kids.

"Allow those individuals to do as much work from home as is needing to be done, that can be done from home," she said, "as opposed to requiring them to take sick leave and leave without pay."

Head Start in the Educational Service District 113 is scheduled to return to the classroom on April 20. District Superintendent Dana Anderson said 233 of the 290 families enrolled have requested a return to face-to-face learning, and that employees have ample time to figure out child-care options. The Federation of Head Start Employees is Local 6153 of the American Federation of Teachers.

According to Rychener, the district will allow remote work on Mondays, since children aren't in classrooms on those days. She noted that Head Start was set up to serve low-income families, and that parents often end up working with the program - because it aligns with their children's school day, so they don't need to pay for child care.

"COVID flips all that on its head," she said, "and so, for those that could find child-care spots, they also don't make enough money to be paying for those child-care spots."

Rychener added that teachers are excited to return to the classroom, but don't want it to come at the expense of their own families.

"We're not saying that we don't want to be working. We're not saying that we don't want to be serving children on-site," she said. "We want to be providing this service; we want to be taking care of our children, and all of the children. We just want to do it in a way that meets the needs of everyone involved."

Gov. Jay Inslee is mandating that children return to classrooms by the week of April 19, although he is only requiring two days of in-person teaching per week.