At their June meeting the King County Democrats Endorsement Committee decided against recommending Vivian Song Maritz in the primary race for a northwest Seattle school board seat after learning that she participated in "a Facebook group that was opposed to collective bargaining around the reopening of schools."
Benton Coblentz, chair of the 11th Legislative District Dems, brought that claim to the table, citing "several sources including [precinct committee officers] in Seattle in the 11th LD."
Sarah Reyneveld, a member of a Democratic club that endorsed Maritz, expressed concern about any issue around collective bargaining but defended Maritz's commitment to equity, her support for mental health services, and her willingness to fully fund schools and transportation systems.
Ultimately, the charge was enough to convince the KC Dems not to endorse Maritz in the primary. The club's committee also declined to endorse interim District 4 school board director Erin Dury for the position in May.
"Reopen Seattle Public Schools," the name of the private Facebook group in question, formed in December of 2020 shortly before COVID-19 began its massive winter surge. At one point the group boasted over 1,000 members all working to "engage in constructive dialogue and advocacy about Reopening SPS" with the ultimate goal of pushing "SPS to return to school in a hybrid model."
As it turns out, both Dury and Maritz participated in the Facebook group, though both candidates did so with markedly different levels of enthusiasm, revealing a difference in how these candidates approached the subject of reopening the schools during the pandemic.
What the fuck is Reopen Seattle Public Schools?
The short answer? The group included many Concerned Parents willing to "push back" against the teachers' union in the discussion around reopening schools, according to their Facebook page. (To perhaps irresponsibly condense a complicated discussion into a sentence, the teachers' union didn't trust the district's safety protocols and wanted staff to receive a vaccine before reopening, and others thought that schools could safely return for in-person learning even if not everyone on staff was immunized.)
The longer answer?
A screenshot from a deleted webpage shows Washington Alliance 4 Kids listing Reopen Seattle Public Schools as part of its network of groups working to reopen schools for hybrid learning across the state ASAP. Don Skillman, who worked as the campaign manager for the opposition against Sound Transit 3, is listed as the nonprofit organization’s registered agent. Republican donor and realtor Moya Skillman publicly spoke on behalf of Washington Alliance 4 Kids and a group called School is Essential.
In an opinion piece for the South Seattle Emerald, Alycia Ramirez, a community organizer, counted the group among those who basically "use kids as a political weapon against schools:"
They adamantly insist schools not offering full-time, in-person learning are psychologically damaging kids and causing Black and Hispanic children to fall behind, yet WA Alliance 4 Kids has not advocated for funding more mental health supports at schools (i.e., counselors), nor have they reached out to the communities they claim to be advocating for to find out what their needs are and how best to amplify them. They have, however, allied with conservative groups, used marginalized families as an excuse to bash local teachers’ unions, and weaponized discussions — particularly around student mental health.
Alexandra Olins, the Facebook group's co-founder, strongly denied any affiliation with the group and said "I had no idea who Washington Alliance 4 Kids was."
Last year, she explained, she started seeing "School is Essential" signs around town, and then "someone" messaged her to say that she should get in touch with these "parents from Bellevue schools who were pushing for schools to reopen." So she did. During a Zoom call later on, organizers from School is Essential convinced Olins to start the Facebook group. Olins said she was initially reluctant, but she and a friend ended up following through because they thought the Facebook group could lead to change for concerned parents.
Olins continued over the phone: "So a few of us attended a Reopen Schools rally with the Washington Alliance 4 Kids group in December. At that rally there was a fight between antifa and the 'Stop the Steal' maniacs, and I realized that we were going to be perceived as being aligned with some Trumpers and some 'Stop the Steal' people, which violates everything I agree with."
After the rally, Olins said she emailed Moya Skillman and asked the organization to remove her Facebook group from their website.
Olins went on: "I’m a liberal Democrat. I’m a former union member. I’m a former teacher. I’m the mother of an African American boy whose son was suffering from remote school with one other person….I’m so sick of this smear campaign on my group, and the Seattle purity tests. I’m a former fucking teacher from a union, and I’m watching my own kid become passive, disengaged, turning from a gregarious kid into a kid who was sitting on his beanbag all day long watching YouTube videos while he’s supposed to be in school. I’m supposed to not do something about it?”
Olins said she ultimately removed her kid from Seattle Public Schools because she was "so sick of the dialogue" and enrolled him in a private school. "I will no longer play politics with my kid," she added.
An “About This Group” section on the Facebook page stated the group's goals and raison d'être:
1. This group is for SPS parents and supporters who want to engage in constructive dialogue and advocacy about Reopening SPS.
2. We believe that having a choice to return to school this year is critical to kids’ mental health, academic and social needs.
3. Our goal is for SPS to return to school in a hybrid model, for students who choose to during the 2020-21 school year, as public health conditions allow.
4. We are guided by science, and public health data that show that schools have low transmission rates when precautions are taken.
5. We support teachers and believe their voices are important in this discussion. We will advocate for children and will push back against SEA’s attempts to control this conversation.
According to screenshots of the group's page, in a comment thread Maritz described herself as “pretty active in the Reopen group and action items," which included "advocating to the governor to give k-12 staff vaccination priority."
At one point, Maritz also wanted to take her frustration to the streets. In January she tried to organize a demonstration outside the John Stanford Center to call for the district to deliver a more comprehensive reopening plan similar to Bellevue's "Back to Buildings Plan."
“There is no school that day and we would be asking SPS for a transparent, public facing plan for reopening for grades K-12 based on public health officials’ recommendations," she wrote on the group page.
The effort failed; in a Facebook poll, 16 people said they could be there “with signs and my kids!” but 23 people said they couldn’t join.
Song also peace-policed the image in this teachers' union Tweet:
Show support for Seattle Educators & share these images. Our district needs to be more transparent with families, students, & educators and stop adding to the stress we all feel during this difficult time. #SEAStrong #DemandSafeSchools Artwork by SEA educator: Glynn Rosenberg pic.twitter.com/BCtEosF08D
— SeattleEdAssoc (@SeattleEdAssoc) February 10, 2021
"These images were utterly tone deaf and are fear mongering. Really disappointed in SEA leadership. I want to support our teachers but this is inappropriate," she wrote in a comment thread.
Over the phone, Maritz explained that she'd been "seeing news stories about how parents' and families' comfort level and trust about whether schools were safe were driven by communications by teachers and principals" and that those images of teachers in hazmat suits "felt extreme" to her.
Maritz confirmed her participation in the Facebook group but said that she "absolutely did not agree" with "a lot of things" said in the comments.
She engaged not because she's anti-union but because she felt eager to find "a better learning situation" for her kid during the pandemic. Maritz said her daughter lives with epilepsy, and certain aspects of remote learning triggered her seizures. Rather than fully participate in lessons, her daughter would have to switch off the camera, turn the computer away, and "mainly just listen." That situation wasn't "ideal," Maritz said.
Though the Facebook group explicitly wanted to "push back" on union demands that conflicted with its values, Maritz argued that both she and the teachers' union were ultimately pushing for the same three things. She wanted to see a more detailed plan for reopening, she wanted that plan to be tied to COVID-19 community spread metrics, and she wanted vaccination priority for "teachers, staff, and childcare workers."
She also disagreed with those in the group who wanted to reopen even without full immunization for teachers and staff. "Did I see other schools opening without vaccinations and doing it safely? Yes...Did I think it was safe to do it without vaccine? I think so. Did I think that was the right choice for Seattle Public Schools? No, because there was already distrust before the pandemic, and to do something aggressive like this" wouldn't align with her values, she said.
"I'm not anti-union at all. I believe teachers and all the staff have a right to collective bargaining," she said.
Dury, one of Maritz's opponents in the race, said she also participated in the group for a couple weeks, but only to push back against the lack of "concern for teachers and principals and staff who would have to bring the students back into the building."
Dury said she couldn't quite remember how she got into the group—either a friend invited her or she just saw it and requested—but once she got in she noticed a pattern in the discussion.
"That group was taking their lived experiences and saying, 'Because my kid would be fine in school, all other kids would be fine,' and that wasn’t necessarily true," Dury said. "There seemed to be no concern for students without transportation to school, or for students who didn’t want to go back to school, or for students furthest from educational justice."
She said she asked the group a question about how their members planned to deal with those issues, and then "the Facebook thread quickly devolved into…it was very obvious that what I was focused on in returning safely to schools was not their interest." After that discussion, she dipped out of the group.
Maritz said she was also concerned about the transportation issue and about the issue of kids furthest from justice not wanting to return to school, and said "if the district had a more robust plan some of this stuff could have been addressed earlier."
Dury said the district must "teach all of the students that go to that school system," and if the district "cannot provide a learning environment for all students—especially students who we systematically fail—we need to take the time to come up with the plans for that."
Students in grades K-12 returned for in-person and hybrid schooling over the first couple weeks of April based on a plan "drafted in a rush to meet Gov. Jay Inslee’s deadline." SPS plans for a full return to in-person schooling in the fall, though the district said it will offer virtual options.