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By Gabriella Landeros

Berrendos Middle School in Tehama County is not following COVID-19 safety measures. Students are expected to sit in groups of four.

As chapters and districts grapple with how and when to return to in-person instruction, CTA has been very vocal about what that means and what it should look like throughout California. It’s one thing for large school districts like Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco, but for smaller school districts in counties not on the COVID-19 watchlist, the decision can be harder to make. 

Across the country, there have been documented cases of schools opening for in-person instruction without proper safety measures, causing immediate outbreaks among students and staff. Schools in Georgia and Mississippi closed one to two days after opening with more than 800 students now in quarantine. And now, with the growing research regarding cases of children who have been infected with COVID-19, we can no longer say kids aren’t likely transmitters. In fact, one study shows coronavirus cases among children and teenagers in California increased 150% in the last month, far outpacing the national average. 

For counties on the watchlist, elementary school districts may apply for waivers that would allow for in-person learning or a hybrid model. We believe that waivers give a pass to open in unsafe conditions, and therefore we see these as not a dependable and safe route.

“Our position from the beginning has been that California cannot physically reopen schools for in-person instruction until it is safe to do,” said CTA President E. Toby Boyd. For our students and educators, “safe schools” should apply to all schools, whether they are on the county watchlist or not. “Safe schools” should apply to school districts seeking waivers from adhering to California Department of Public Health (CDPH) guidance, as well as those that are seeking to comply. Boyd added, “Governor Newsom is well aware of what we mean by ‘safe schools,’” referencing a recent open letter, where CTA outlined concerns and recommendations on equity and other important issues related to the safe physical reopening of schools.

Our goal should be how can we provide the best quality education in the safest conditions possible, period.

—E. Toby Boyd, CTA President

As the pandemic progresses and infection rates increase across California, educators and parents face difficult decisions about how best to safely return to schools. We reached out to Chapter Presidents all over the state to find out how it’s going in their school districts.

Northern California

(8/19/20) – John Durfee, president of the Antelope Teachers Association (ATA) in Tehama County — which is not on the watchlist — has called into question whether the county should be on the watchlist due to the high percentage of cases in a less populous area of the state. Just last week, they ended up with their office staff and principal being exposed. For at least two weeks, Berrendos Middle School will now be going distance learning without students on the school site, but no choice for educators.  

Durfee referenced California’s recent inaccurate COVID-19 count, which left many areas off the watchlist. A yo-yo effect like the one that occurred in Antelope could happen in any county. There are other risks to this, including districts assuming that “relaxed” safety measures can be put in place. Until there is clear evidence that the virus transmission is very low with accessible and timely testing of school employees, all counties should open in a distance learning model and waivers should be suspended. 

When the district deems it’s safe for students to return, ATA educators hope the district implements strong safety measures that protects students and faculty, which as of now is not evident. After the two weeks are up, the district is giving the students the choice of where to learn from, but educators do not receive the same respect. Though they will be following two modules for in-person and distance learning instruction, educators are assigned with no preference for those who are at higher risk of catching COVID-19. For educators like Durfee who are immunocompromised, the new school year should bring excitement and pleasure, not fear and anxiety.  

“On my first day back, 27 desks are still lined up next to each other, and there are no markers for safe social distancing. In a county of 66,000, today there are about 340 COVID-19 cases. How can we feel safe knowing a non-contained virus is sweeping over our community?” said Durfee. “There is absolutely no difference in allowing educators the choice of where to teach. We had months to master it, and what makes it even more odd is that the students in the classroom will be watching the same lesson I am giving in the classroom on their tablets. Rather than providing a classroom feel, it turns into a child care facility of 24 students in the classroom.” 

Sheri Daley, also a member of ATA, will be running the distance learning curriculum with third and fourth grade teachers at Antelope Elementary School. “I am so nervous about going back to the classroom because my husband, brother-in-law and dad all have underlying health conditions, and I am worried about getting them sick,” said Daley.  

(8/19/20) – “For the Corning Elementary Teachers Association (CETA), the entire district is following a distance learning module for eight weeks to ensure the county stays off the watch list, and staff can work from home if they have a doctor’s note. Most safety precautions are in place, but we are still advocating for 6 feet of distance when students and teachers return to the school site,” said CETA President Teddy Omlor.

(9/8/2020) – Students and families have always been a priority for the Oakland Education Association.  The emphasis of OEA’s work with district management has been to improve the crisis distance learning experience for students, their families and staff.  OEA was able to guarantee technology for families, Chromebooks for students and hot spots for teachers, plus translation services for teachers to enhance their ability to support families.  “We gave our students a fighting chance to get logged in and to learn. OEA had to fight for it and we’re proud we stood our ground,” said OEA President Keith Brown.

(8/19/20) – Christopher Daley, who is with the Red Bluff Elementary Educators’ Association (RBEEA), teaches sixth grade, can go full distance learning with the choice of where to teach. For RBEEA, they won this with the support of about 50% of parents in the community. Along with liability being a factor, their district agreed to put its investment in distance learning rather than in-person. 

“It wasn’t hard to get the district to agree to teaching from home or our classroom. The problem will be when we go back to face-to-face. Then, staff will have to have documentation that they can’t be in the classroom,” said RBEEA President Catherine Piffero.

For CTA, it is our hope that neighboring districts will follow the same lead because it is the safest and wisest thing to do.  

(9/8/2020) – In-person school was supposed to start in the TK-8 Sausalito Marin City School District (SMCSD) September 8, but one staffer tested positive and the open date has been put on hold for one week.  The small Sausalito District Teachers Association faced a difficult situation with district managers trying to play hard ball.  They persisted and stuck to their own safety standards and won what many consider the best memorandum of understanding (MOU) in Marin County. They continue to work closely with the district superintendent to guarantee safe teaching and learning conditions.

Requiring facemasks for all students and staff was important for in-person instruction.  No one is required to work from campus, educators can volunteer to do so.  And some say they will because of the safety standards SDTA negotiated.

While Marin County recommended 4-6 feet for social distancing, the MOU requires six feet between all student work spaces and for all student-educator work spaces.  Most Marin County schools have co-hort sizes of 12-20.  SDTA negotiated a 13 student co-hort, plus a limit of three cohort in-person interactions per day for teachers. In addition,  district managers agreed they will not split up or combine co-horts if no substitutes can be found.  Educators can volunteer to cover classrooms rather than be required to do so.

SMCSD managers agreed to provide portable air filters and purification systems for classrooms with inadequate ventilation, specifically for those with windows that don’t open.

The agreement includes no cost childcare options for all staff and parents working as essential workers.  It also guarantees SDTA members will not lose pay if they are out on leave, either to care for a child or because they are sick. And if educators are unable to return to in-person instruction or can’t be accommodated, SDTA members can use accumulated sick leave and will, if necessary, be offered differential pay by being put on paid administrative leave for the rest of year.

Central California

(8/24/20) – In Manteca, which is part of San Joaquin County and on the watchlist, the district is requiring educators to report to the school site in unsafe conditions. Due to the current forest fires, Manteca also has the worst air quality in the area (Level 5). “On top of unsafe conditions due to COVID-19 and the district neglecting the governor’s order, we are now dealing with fires putting the lives of educators at risk. How many disasters will it take for the district to understand that it is not safe to reopen? Due to their lack of cooperation, we now going to impasse to address their twelve contract violations,” said MEA President Ken Johnson.

Southern California

(9/8/2020) – In early August the Santa Maria Elementary Education Association reached agreement on an MOU with the school district on remote teaching and learning protocols for the start of the 2020-21 school year. The agreement calls for staggered scheduling for staff to work both from their classrooms and from home, with individual exceptions allowed for staff members who may need to work from home full-time, and the ability for educators with child-care needs to bring their children to work while they are teaching from their classroom (although district immediately violated that part of the agreement by insisting it did not apply to opening staff development days; a grievance is pending).

That glitch aside, the agreement was a victory for the union as the school district had originally wanted all staff on campus at the same time. The union successfully argued that this would create an unsafe situation, with some sites having well over a hundred staff members and making it extremely difficult to properly  social distance. Although instruction is being done remotely, students did return to campus with parents or guardians in shifts for “launch days” in order to meet the instructors and review technology and expectations. To ensure safety the staff were divided into two groups and each was given their own week to meet with parents and students, with the meetings staggered an hour apart and many staff setting up their desks in doorways and conducting the orientations with students outside the room

Throughout this process and since the day schools closed on March 16,  SMMEA President Jose Segura has been keeping members informed with a series of more than 35 video “Fireside Chats.” These chats were augmented by a member-driven FAQ page that fielded and responded to over 400 member questions, ensuring members had the latest information.  Following adoption of the MOU, the chat  FAQS were converted to a Distance Learning MOU question submission page used to field questions and concerns, which Segura has also kept posted in an Excel sheet available to members.

“SMEEA is committed to ensuring the safety of our members and our students as we reopen this year,” says Segura. “We negotiated this MOU with the goal of coming up with something that made both academic and medical sense.”

(9/01/20) –During a recent press conference, leaders from CTA’s southernmost chapters reminded media that outbreaks have been inordinately high in the working-class neighborhoods of south San Diego. Case numbers indicate a “red-zone” status-based on current infection rates-and warrant a cautious approach before reopening.

Leaders urged districts to get safety precautions in place now, rather than face the results of failure and additional shutdowns later. If done properly, the sacrifices made by parents, students, and teachers will not have been wasted.

“South Bay San Diego has been hardest hit in the county and is just now seeing improvement. We want to avoid the yo-yo effect of opening and closing our schools,” said CTA Board Member Roberto Rodriguez.

Ensuring an effective supply chain for safety gear is another important standard every reopening site should be able to meet; “We must make sure there are enough masks, sanitizer and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) not only for the start of school, but for the entire school year” said Sweetwater Education Association leader Lucy Ugarte.

(9/4/20) – United Teachers Los Angeles/District  Reach Agreement on Distance Learning Model for first months of 2020-21 School Year

United Teachers Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified school District reached a tentative agreement in early August that addresses UTLA’s top priorities of protecting the health and safety of students and staff; closing the digital divide through a “smart start” to the school year with technology walkthroughs and support; strengthening crisis distance learning to maintain daily school routines; expanding socio-emotional support during these traumatic times;  and ensuring educator discretion and flexibility in recognition of the unprecedented circumstances in which we are living.

The agreement between CTA’s largest state affiliate and LAUSD, the second largest school district in the nation, will remain in effect until December 31 or until students return to school campuses for instruction. The plan ensures safety while requiring daily live interaction, designating Mondays as instructional support days with full instruction occurring Tuesday-Friday. It also establishes joint union/management workgroups to deal with distance learning issues and student/community health concerns.

“This agreement is what we need in this time of crisis to strengthen teaching and learning and expand the social-emotional supports our students need,” UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said. “Crisis distance learning is not ideal, but it is a temporary and necessary solution to keep our communities safe. We are five months into a global pandemic that has aggravated the racial and social inequities that plague our society. Our political and economic leaders need to get serious about giving our schools the funding to reopen safely and giving our communities the safety net to survive the devastation of this pandemic.”