(Editor’s note: The letter and interviews for this story were completed prior to the most recent state and local heath orders being announced on July 10 and 13. Numbers and other factors cited below may not reflect the most current reality. We will update this article as more information becomes available).
On July 8, the California Teachers Association (CTA), the state-wide teacher’s union, sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond affirming their support for distance learning at the start of the school year. The letter cites the numerous health and safety concerns the union has for its members, as well as the children in their care. CTA boasts over 300,000 members. Sonoma West reached out to local teachers’ associations to get their take on the letter.
“Since schools closed in March, CTA has said that the health and safety of our students and educators must always be our top priority and our guiding principle during this crisis,” begins the letter. “Much is still being learned about the COVID-19 virus. The recent surge in the infection rate and the closure of indoor activities in 26 counties gives us pause around the state’s preparedness for safe in-person school instruction in a short six- to eight-week time frame. In this current situation, we believe that the “Precautionary Principle” should guide us. This means taking the most preventative action in the face of uncertainty to protect students, educators, and our communities. Simply said, California cannot reopen schools unless they are safe.”
One of the biggest challenges for individual districts, according to CTA’s letter, is the disparity in resources from one district to the next, making a blanket policy for the state nearly untenable.
“Unfortunately, many local districts and communities don’t have the necessary resources or capacity to maintain even the most basic prevention measures of six feet physical distancing and limiting contacts, much less the other important preventative actions such as personal protective equipment (PPE), testing and tracing, or adequate ventilation and cleaning supplies,” said the letter.
Included in that option, is the reality of how difficult many of the necessary safety measures will be to implement, regardless of the resources available.
“While no one method of prevention by itself is 100 percent effective, layered strategies boost prevention with each measure knocking off some percentage of exposure and potential infection. This includes a clear and manageable plan to implement measures like physical distancing of six feet, reducing the number of contacts, face coverings, handwashing, daily health screening, support for sick and at-risk people to stay at home, robust testing, good ventilation (with absolutely no recirculated air), and cleaning and disinfecting,” said CTA, continuing on to point out the absurdity of reopening schools with a lower safety threshold than those for restaurants and hair salons.
Among the actions CTA would like to see taken at the state level are:
- a uniform symptoms checklist and safety protocols
- data transparency and accessibility
- increased testing dedicated to schools for students and staff
- rapid case notification and contact tracing
- isolation support and medical care for vulnerable students and families
- health monitoring of students to serve as early understandings of transmissions in schools and warnings of any school-based outbreaks
- the development and implementation of training for all school districts on safety protocols and direction that Illness and Injury Prevention plans be updated and adopted prior to the first day of in-person instruction
“As educators, we too want to be back with our students doing the work that we love, but we cannot ignore science, facts and safety,” said the letter. “Absent a specific plan for each school that includes a clear line of responsibility and accountability we have two options, a high-risk in-person opening, even under a hybrid model or start the new school year under robust distance learning protocols until the virus is contained in local communities and proper safety measures can be put into place.
“It is clear that communities and school districts have not come close to meeting the threshold for a safe return to in-person learning, even under a hybrid model,” CTA concludes.
The letter is signed by CTA President E. Toby Boyd and CTA Vice President David Goldberg.
Local teachers’ unions have their own view of CTA’s letter, though they are largely in agreement.
“The West Sonoma County Teachers Association (WSCTA) supports the California Teachers Association's position on a return to distance learning. At the time the CTA was working on this document, locals from around the state had been working on and negotiating MOUs (contract agreements for this situation) with their districts,” said Lily Smedshammer, president of the WSCTA. “The language coming out of these local conversations is remarkably in line with the communication from CTA. It verifies that CTA is in touch with what teachers around the state are demanding: extensive safety precautions, a sustained downward trend in new COVID-19 cases and new cases at a rate lower than 1 in 10,000 residents. These restrictions reflect advice from state and federal officials to determine reopening stages. Why wouldn't we want the same, or stronger, safety measures for our public schools?”
Smedshammer’s district has had more challenges than most in the county, as communication between teachers and the district has broken down many times in the last year, but she says the pandemic communications have actually restored some of those communications.
“We've had a very tumultuous year in employee management relations, including the first teacher strike in district history. But having to navigate this moment in education has reopened the lines of communication and improved collaboration,” she said. “Because no one has the answers for this crisis, we have to lean on each other and communicate frequently and openly to provide the best learning opportunities for our students.”
According to Smedshammer, the summer has been spent with district and union leadership meeting extensively via Zoom about what school would look like in the fall. Though the focus of those meetings was on creating a viable hybrid education model, a plan for distance learning has also been designed for the fall.
“The school board approved the plans on July 8th, including a plan to begin the year on distance learning, to properly prepare for the remainder of the semester,” she said.
While the WSCTA is open to discussions on the topic of returning to classrooms, like the CTA and other local groups, they have concerns.
“There is a rising movement in California to stay on distance learning until the COVID-19 threat is clearly under control. The Santa Rosa Teachers Association is voting on a resolution to remain on distance learning until there have been zero new cases over 14 consecutive days. Other locals in the area, including the WSCTA, are also discussing similar resolutions,” Smedshammer said. “The risks to the health of our students and our members are real and need to be taken seriously. With a third of our staff over 45 years old, a multitude of preexisting conditions, and too many unknowns about the long-term health ramifications for infected young people, the best course of action is to learn from home until the threat has abated. We share the desire to return to in-person learning; the teachers want to be with their students, creating those personal connections and occupying the same space. But we aren't willing to put health and lives on the line when we know we can pour our talent and energy into high quality distance learning.”
Should the schools open with distance learning, Smedshammer wants it known that this fall’s version of distance learning will not be the same as what was utilized in the spring.
“The experience of distance learning this spring has many parents, teachers and students worried that distance learning will not meet learning needs this fall. I want to caution against this comparison,” she said. “Brian Miller, our chief negotiator refers to last quarter as 'Crisis Learning,' and the term fits. That situation was sudden and complicated by problems like: lack of student access to a device, lack of internet connectivity, having to transfer curriculum to a platform for which it had not been designed and the state's "held harmless" regulation that made it impossible for us to give students real grades or have accountability.
“This fall will be a completely different experience,” she continued. “We plan to focus on building connections and community with our students. There are teaching techniques and platforms that will allow our students to collaborate and interact through their devices. There is even likely to be a "bell schedule" to help students and parents keep a track of school and assignments at home. Teachers spent our summer pouring our energy into transferring our curriculum online. We want the best experience possible for our students this year.”
As cases have increased, and Newsom announced new statewide and local closures on July 10 and July 13, the hybrid model appears less and less likely. Previous statements indicated that if an area was in “Phase 2” that in-person learning would not be allowed, though so far it isn’t clear whether these new closures represent a backwards step in phases or simply a modification of the current phase. However, on July 13 school districts in San Diego and Los Angeles announced they were definitively choosing to remain with distance learning for at least the fall semester.