California teachers’ unions affirm opposition to opening schools without more safety precautions

Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

A second-grade teacher helps a student with a writing assignment in a hybrid classroom.

As the pandemic continues to spread in a seemingly uncontrolled fashion, California’s leading teachers’ unions have affirmed their opposition to school openings without significantly more safety precautions, further complicating hopes for bringing more students back to school for in-person instruction.

Currently, almost all students attend schools in counties in the state’s Tier One “purple” list, which means those schools are prohibited from providing in-person instruction unless they were already doing so before the county went on the purple list, are providing instruction to small groups of students with special needs, or through special waivers for students in the K-6 grades.

However, the California Teachers Association on Wednesday sent a letter to lawmakers saying that even those schools in purple counties that are already offering in-person instruction should not be allowed to do so. “CTA continues to believe that schools in communities at Purple Tier levels of transmission and risk should not be open or reopen,” a letter from CTA president E. Toby Boyd and other top CTA leaders said.

The union continues to press the state to come up with what it and the superintendents of some of the state’s largest districts are calling “common standards” for testing and other health requirements that would apply to all districts throughout the state before they’d be allowed to reopen. Standards along those lines are nowhere on the horizon.

“Let us be clear, no one wants to be back in our classrooms with our students where we know they learn best, more than educators,” the CTA letter said.

“Safety, however, should not be a relative or subjective term up to regional or political interpretation.”

On Thursday, the California Federation of Teachers urged its members to write to Gov. Gavin Newsom and other lawmakers to oppose a recently introduced bill (Assembly Bill 10) that would require schools that are not in the purple tier to reopen on or after March 1, 2021, as long as they are not in the purple tier.

“We miss our students and want to be back in our classrooms,” the action alert declared. “But we cannot support our schools being reopened in a manner that is unsafe for students, teachers, staff or their families.”

According to a report in Politico, the CTA is also opposing the legislation in a more direct way than it has so far publicly. The report cites a letter from the CTA’s Boyd to legislative leaders earlier this week critical of Democrats for introducing the legislation “during the most dangerous time of the pandemic” and saying that it is setting an arbitrary date of March 1 for school openings.

The teachers’ unions are not the only ones to have expressed dire concerns about opening schools for in-person instruction. The superintendents of Los Angeles Unified and other large urban districts have expressed similar concerns, as have the mayors of several of the state’s largest cities. Just this week, United Teachers Los Angeles was joined by dozens of other labor unions in Los Angeles County calling on the Board of Supervisors to declare a four-week “circuit breaker” in January by imposing what they call a “true lockdown” by closing all “non-essential” retail businesses.

Their opposition comes amid rising frustration among many parents with the seemingly endless days of distance learning.

Concerns are also deepening in response to reports from many school districts about sharp increases in low or failing grades among high school students compared to last fall before the pandemic upended education in the state. This is especially the case for many Black, Latino and low-income student students, who are being disproportionately affected by distance learning, the principal mode of instruction for most students in California.

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