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By Julian Peeples

Locals across the state say no in-person school until it’s safe

Educators across the state are rising united to defend each other, their students and the collective health of their communities, issuing powerful statements that they will not return to in-classroom teaching until conditions are safe enough to do so. This after CTA’s letter last week to Gov. Gavin Newsom and state leaders that California cannot reopen schools unless they are safe for educators, students and their families.

Today, Los Angeles and San Diego unified school districts—the largest school districts in California—announced that school will resume next month fully online, citing “skyrocketing infection rates” and agreeing with CTA that the health and safety of students, educators and communities cannot be compromised by reopening schools. This announcement comes after last week’s poll by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) that showed 83 percent of educators did not want to physically return to classrooms.

“In March, UTLA called on LAUSD officials to close schools in light of the growing urgency of the COVID health crisis, and they closed them,” UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said. “It was the right thing to close school campuses then, and it’s the right thing to keep them closed now. In the face of the alarming spike in COVID cases, the lack of necessary funding from the government to open schools safely, and the outsized threat of death faced by working class communities of color, there really is no other choice that doesn’t put thousands of lives at risk.”

The news from the two largest school districts in the state echoed increased concerns across the state of the exploding COVID-19 pandemic, which is reaching dangerous levels in more than half of the counties in California. In response, Newsom enacted new measures statewide, once again banning indoor activities like eating in restaurants and going to museums in an effort to slow the spread and save lives.

After attempting to negotiate a reopening that put health and safety above all else, San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA) decided that San Jose Unified School District’s plan was too dangerous to accept, issuing a letter to the school board and superintendent that educators did not feel it was safe to return to classrooms and were unwilling to do so. SJTA President Patrick Bernhardt said that SJTA members desperately want to return to their school communities and be with their students again, but the COVID situation over the past few weeks has become more serious—particularly in ZIP codes served by San Jose Unified.

“We believe a focus on distance learning is the most effective use of our limited resources and is the necessary response to the worsening spread of the virus,” Bernhardt said in his letter, which identified criteria by which teachers would feel safe to return. “We urge the district to commit now to starting school on Aug. 12 in distance learning and to devote the next five weeks to ensuring a robust and rigorous distance learning experience for all students.”

San Jose Unified notified parents of SJTA’s decision and is surveying the community as it determines how to proceed, with a virtual school board meeting scheduled for Thursday.

Oakland Education Association (OEA) also notified Oakland Unified School District last week that educators will not return to classrooms until two significant safety criteria are met:

  1. We must determine Risk is Low enough to return, with low community transmission in Oakland. OUSD must have a detailed, science-based testing and contact tracing program for all students, families, and school staff, paid for and supervised by county public health departments. There must be a downward trajectory, and near zero incidence of documented cases, hospitalization, and positivity rates for at least 14 days in Oakland in order to consider in-person instruction.
  2. Once Criteria One is met, OUSD must then ensure that Safety Standards and Precautions can be established and maintained. This includes providing PPE (i.e. masks, face shields, gowns, etc.) for all students and staff, class sizes small enough to accommodate six feet of physical distancing, increased cleaning and staffing inside buildings, and facilities upgrades for proper ventilation.

“We know that COVID is disproportionately impacting Black and Brown communities, and the rates in East Oakland are higher than anywhere else in the country,” said Oakland teacher and OEA member Chela Delgado. “I believe it would be irresponsible to open in the Fall.”

OEA was in negotiations with OUSD all last week and met this week to reach an agreement that protects students, educators and the Oakland community, though OUSD apparently was not ready for serious talks about safety. OUSD announced last week that school will begin on Aug. 10 with all students in distance learning.

Monday evening, concerned Orange County educators, parents and community groups will issue a call for sanity during a special Orange County Board of Education (OCBE) meeting where officials are expected to recommend that schools physically reopen in the fall — without implementing the use of face masks, social distancing or reduced class sizes. The elected board is expected to approve the recommendation of a panel that had zero teachers and in the face of overwhelming evidence that reopening school for in-person instruction will be deadly. (UPDATE — The OCBE approved the non-binding recommendations by a 4-1 vote.)

While CTA Board of Directors District M member Joe Bartell said the OCBE decision will have little impact on local Orange County school districts, it’s important to push back against harmful guidance that put our educators and students in danger, and be the voice of reason in these difficult discussions.

“Educators are the people who will have to endure the conditions that our districts create when schools are back in session,” Bartell said. “I’m not willing to be a case study, are you?”

The meeting, related rhetoric, and larger issue of reopening schools in the midst of a raging pandemic came up during Newsom’s noon COVID update, with a reporter inquiring how state officials have declared the situation too dangerous to presently have any indoor activities but not unsafe enough to formally declare that millions of students will not return to classrooms this fall. Newsom acknowledged the health concerns, saying that there are conditions that districts need to satisfy to receive funding to re-open and noting that while local districts will come up with plans they believe work for their communities, the state “will assert itself ourselves” if necessary.

“You’ll be hearing more in the next few days,” Newsom said.