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By Julian Peeples

As school districts across California rush to physically return to classrooms, a woeful lack of planning for COVID-19 testing, tracing and prevention is putting educators, students and our communities at serious risk of contracting a virus that has already killed more than 200,000 Americans.

No one’s life should be put at risk because local officials refuse to make health and safety the guiding priority for physically reopening schools, yet across the state school districts are ignoring best practices and medical recommendations to push forward without basic plans, precautions and equipment. While Gov. Gavin Newsom and state officials have opted to trust local leaders to make the decisions that are best for their school districts and communities, the truth is that many cannot or will not, and the time has come for uniform state directives on COVID testing, tracing and prevention to protect lives.

“Your leadership and action are needed to ensure that robust testing, tracing and isolation support, along with other prevention measures, are in place before students, educators and support staff return to in-person learning,” CTA President E. Toby Boyd wrote in a Sept. 16 letter to the governor and other state leaders. “California must fund, coordinate, and operationalize a true public health response to support public education in our state.”

In the absence of a state mandate, school districts have been left to cobble (and negotiate) their own approaches to COVID testing, tracing and prevention, leading to wide variance between health and safety plans from one district to the next. In rural Modoc Joint Unified School District in the northeast corner of the state, there is no testing in place for educators or students while 700 miles away, Chula Vista Elementary School District decided unilaterally to hire a start-up medical firm for testing that Chula Vista Educators President Susan Skala says is using non-FDA approved COVID tests. Lodi Unified School District officials refuse to even discuss testing or tracing at the negotiating table with educators, while Napa Valley Unified School District announced last week plans to test all employees every eight weeks.

The reluctance by state officials to mandate basic standards and protocols is impacting everyone.

“We need our leaders at the state level to lead so we have safe classrooms because otherwise, we won’t ever be able to return,” says Napa Valley Education Association President Gayle Young. “Since we don’t have a unified approach from the state, it’s making it harder for our locals to get things done.”

A recent study by the Duke Margolis Center for Health Policy showed that “a basic screening strategy will require approximately 200 million tests each month for students and staff at the nation’s primary and secondary schools and residents and staff at nursing homes for them to open safely and in stages.” The report calls for testing all “students and staff every two weeks” and an increased frequency when trends worsen.

“We all seem to agree that testing is critical to prevent transmission and outbreaks in schools. Yet the state has created an environment where counties are allowing schools to open with no system for testing and tracing,” Boyd said in his letter to Newsom. “A state solution is needed for this statewide problem. It is unrealistic to expect over a thousand school districts or even 58 counties to take on this task individually.”

Despite more than 65,000 school-age California children being infected with COVID since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the California Department of Public Health, state leaders have yet to act on CTA’s repeated calls for uniform testing and tracing procedures – or the funding needed to pay for such plans, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other preventative supplies. Meanwhile, the State of Rhode Island has committed to 5,000 COVID tests every day for all school employees and students, while all Minnesota educators will be sent a COVID saliva test kit to use before physically returning to school or save in case they develop symptoms. Cornell University has one of the most robust COVID screening programs in the nation, utilizing “surveillance testing” and requiring all staff and students to complete a health “check in” online before arriving on campus.

“Having that contact tracing would be really important because the virus doesn’t just affect one teacher, it affects many,” says Modoc Teachers Association President Katie Copp. “Tracing would give us additional time and cause to take precautions that could save lives.”

 

Chula Vista: Management Pushes to Re-Open Without Planning, Negotiation

“I don’t know why we’re rushing to reopen. Our ZIP codes have the highest COVID incidence in the county. It’s like playing Russian Roulette with people’s lives and I don’t think it’s worth it.” — Chula Vista Educators (CVE) President Susan Skala

CVE has been in negotiations with Chula Vista Elementary School District (CVESD) officials about the pandemic since in-person classes were halted in March, and Skala says that district management has failed to show care for the health and safety of educators and students every step of the way. Even after months of difficult negotiations on how to reopen classrooms in the largest elementary school district in the state, Skala and her 1,450 CVE members were blindsided this weekend by a unilateral announcement by CVESD that schools could reopen as soon as Oct. 26 – with class sizes as large as 18 students and masks required for third through eighth graders, but only recommended for K-2.

Susan Skala

“I would like to say that I trust district leaders to make the right decisions for our health and safety, but I can’t,” Skala says. “If they want to come back on Oct. 26, then how can I trust them?”

Skala said there were three COVID outbreaks in daycares being housed at district schools, and last week a CVE member who was teaching on site at one of these schools tested positive for COVID. Skala said the buildings have inadequate ventilation while the day care programs utilize poor or no preventative practices, including the regular interaction of unmasked adults and children. With Friday’s bombshell reopening announcement, which will need to be negotiated with educators per the collective bargaining process, CVE educators are mobilizing to defend each other, their students and the Chula Vista community.

“We’ve been asking why we need to come back and we’re still waiting for an answer,” Skala says. “We have members who are worried about what to do with their kids, members who have at-risk family, and they are scared. It just doesn’t make any sense. We need the state to step in and defend our health and safety.”

Skala says during a crisis like this pandemic, it’s reassuring that her union is working hard at all levels to ensure that health remains the highest priority.

“It’s comforting to know we have people fighting for us in the Capitol – that we have the power of CTA and the collective voice of 310,000 members,” she says. “We have a lot we don’t agree on, but I know we can agree that safety comes first.”

 

Lodi: Fighting Against Misinformation & Fervor

“I don’t trust the system that has been put in place – we’ve already found holes in it. The procedures aren’t solid and the people aren’t following them. It’s a faulty system because it relies on people being truthful and honest about their health when they need to work to earn money to live.” — Lodi Education Association (LEA) President Michelle Orgon

There have been 22 cases of Lodi Unified School District (LUSD) employees either testing positive for COVID or being exposed and requiring strict quarantine, according to Orgon, who spent Friday dealing with an outbreak at a district high school that resulted in two positives and eight people needing tests. It’s an everyday issue in Lodi, where educators lack sufficient protective supplies and have to battle for their safety with district administrators and a community that wants schools to physically reopen, regardless of the science.

Michelle Orgon

“Our district is moving forward with small cohorts, so that’s what we’re bargaining now,” Orgon says. “The district does not want to talk about testing or tracing at all. They didn’t even want us to take students’ temperatures, saying that we aren’t healthcare professionals. They eventually backed down and allowed it for in-person interactions.”

Much of Orgon’s summer was spent in rough negotiations with LUSD officials, who continue to push for physical reopening of classrooms without an adequate plan or enough supplies to protect students, staff and educators. She said the district cannot keep enough PPE in stock, and educators requesting a restock of necessary supplies have been told they’ve already “used their allotment.”

“I’m getting complaints all over the district that our teachers don’t have the gloves and masks they need,” Orgon says. “And we’re supposed to bring students back to the classroom soon?”

Simultaneously, many parents are clamoring for schools to physically reopen, fueling the district’s rush to return without proper safety precautions. Orgon says a big fault in the district’s approach is that it depends too much on all staff, students and families making good decisions and being honest about their health symptoms when doing so could prevent them from working and earning resources for their families. The district is also cutting corners when it comes to sanitizing facilities – Orgon says LEA’s agreement with LUSD calls for regular cleaning “at the district’s discretion,” which management is choosing to exercise at a cost to collective health and safety.

“Here we thought we had good language and then a classroom hasn’t been cleaned in a week. When people send their kids to school, they’re going to think the classrooms are thoroughly disinfected every day and in reality, the custodian is in a room for three minutes,” Orgon says. “I don’t want to lose anybody because we didn’t have the cleaning supplies, masks and disinfectants.”

Orgon says the state needs to act now, echoing CTA’s call for uniform COVID prevention standards in all California public schools.

“We need the governor to make the difficult decisions that protect our most vulnerable and do what’s best for all. We need to make sure our schools only reopen when they are safe for everyone,” she says. “It’s so important that my job to fight here locally for healthy reopening is supported by people fighting for us at the state level – and CTA has led that fight.”

 

Modoc: Students Back in Classrooms, Educators Still Wary

Katie Copp

Katie Copp welcomed 20 first-graders back to her classroom in rural Modoc Joint Unified School District four weeks ago, and while school is obviously different Copp says it’s been good to be back together. While many images of classrooms that have reopened across the country show elaborate plexiglass dividers and other preventative measures, Copp says that the only differences in her classroom were the mask on her face and the socially distanced rows of desks – an unrealistic setup with 20 first grade students in limited space and one that has since changed to familiar small group tables.

Copp said that nearly a month in, it was a good decision to physically return to school.

“The kids really need that social aspect,” she says. “And it gives teachers our purpose back. It’s hard to teach to a screen.”

But while classes have physically resumed, the Modoc Teachers Association (MTA) president said everything is not back to normal for her teachers, especially with Modoc County recently experiencing a spike in COVID cases that moved them backward a step in the state’s pandemic rating system. Copp says MTA’s agreement with the district provides for necessary PPE and air filters “if funding is available,” which means that many classrooms, educators and students will go without.

“We’re not sure if the money will be there, so additional funding from the state for the supplies our schools need would be great. Even though cases have increased, nothing at our site has changed,” Copp says. “We’re kind of between a rock and a hard place because we have teachers who are very concerned about their health and some who have accepted that they may become sick, no matter what. So, uniformity from the state would very helpful.”

America’s polarized political climate plays out in Modoc County and in many conservative areas across the state, where some community members, parents and even elected leaders are rejecting science and best health practices in favor of unproven opinions and conjecture. Copp says it’s hard to change this mindset held by many in her county who think the pandemic threat is overstated.

“I think district leaders believe they are making the best decisions. I do think their political and ideological views are impacting their logic. These decisions are hard to make when you aren’t actually in the classroom.” — MTA President Katie Copp

Copp says as a rural local in one of the most remote parts of the state, having CTA working hard in the Capitol to protect all students and educators in this health crisis is reassuring.

“Otherwise, small districts like ours would be hit hard. Having people advocating strictly for the safety of teachers and students is invaluable,” she says. “CTA amplifies our voices, so decision-makers can hear us.”

 

Napa: Collaboration Creates Safer Conditions, but Needs Remain

“If we want to be healthy and safe, we need our teachers coming into to classrooms to be COVID-free,” says Napa Valley Educators Association (NVEA) President Gayle Young. “But the concern from my members is what about the students? Our county does not test children. I believe this requirement needs to come from the state level, like immunizations.”

Gayle Young

Young says the ever-changing environment and unknown nature of COVID has left many of her members feel like they’re constantly walking on ice, and after the county’s Sept. 14 announcement that conditions had improved to the point that schools could physically reopen, Napa Valley Unified School District (NVUSD) set a target reopening date of Oct. 26. This new phase will be a hybrid of in-person and distance learning with staggered cohorts.

“Of course we’re not ready,” Young says. “That gives us one month to create safety measures and communicate those measures to everyone.”

Per county direction, all NVUSD teachers will be tested for COVID once every eight weeks, and Young says the school district has been diligent in providing the appropriate PPE as required by their memorandum of understanding. Last week, the superintendent held a town hall meeting with all district employees to discuss reopening and related issues. Every step of the way, Young said NVEA leaders and rank-and-file educators have been involved in all discussions about distance learning and how to safely return to classrooms.

“We have a good relationship with our district and there is teacher voice in every decision that’s being made. We’ve got another month to get the safety issues dialed in. We cannot teach in person without them.” — NVEA President Gayle Young

Young said that she and her bargaining team trust district leaders to collaborate and reach decisions that put health and safety above all else, though she said that not all 850 of her members share that faith in management. This makes open communication about the safety measures so important for the collective health of the school community, especially when neighboring counties are still experiencing high rates of infection.

“I don’t think anyone wants to make a decision that hurts anybody,” Young says. “I think it’s really important that CTA is working toward a statewide approach because the virus doesn’t know county lines. It becomes a political nightmare because you’re dealing with the county and state, and a virus that is potentially deadly.”