Teachers, parents, and district clash over school reopening

Story by Sofia Alva Lilian Zhu
Associate News Editor Associate Webmaster

Illustration by Alicia Zhang
Staff Illustrator

Photos courtesy of Pat Barr Kim Sinclair

Teachers rallied together through countless public comments at multiple School Board meetings to voice concerns about what they believe is the district’s decision to reopen SPUSD schools without prioritizing their safety. 

The reopening of grades TK to 2 in a hybrid model on Thursday, Feb. 18 left almost all elementary school teachers without the first or second dose of the coronavirus vaccine for several weeks while teaching in person. Third and fourth graders returned on Thursday, Mar. 11 and fifth graders came back to campus on Monday, Mar. 15, even though many elementary school teachers had only received one vaccine dose. 

“I find it appalling that the district, administration, and board members find it appropriate to reopen our elementary schools while they indicate that their meetings must be held online for their COVID safety,” Monterey Hills Elementary School fourth grade teacher Laurie Thackery said in a public comment at the Wednesday, Feb. 17 Board meeting. “If [the School Board] met in the large board room, there would be many windows and three to four times the square footage of a classroom. I have no windows in my classroom and a fraction of the square footage. Walk the talk.”

SPHS teachers are scheduled to come back to campus on Thursday, Apr. 15, while SPMS teachers return on Thursday, Apr. 8. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person who receives the vaccine is not fully immunized until two weeks after their second dose. Thus, just like most elementary school teachers, SPMS educators will not be fully immunized by their return date if they were one of the over 200 employees who received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at the clinic SPUSD hosted in partnership with the USC Keck School of Medicine on Friday, Mar. 5 and Saturday, Mar. 6. However, SPHS teachers who attended the clinic will be fully vaccinated by the high school return date.

Since L.A. County moved from the purple tier into the red tier on Monday, Mar. 15, SPMS and SPHS are allowed to reopen in accordance with county and state guidelines. Teachers who do not feel safe returning to school must take an unpaid leave of absence. However, per the Americans with Disabilities Act, if they have a verified medical restriction that prevents them from teaching in person, they will be allowed to continue virtual instruction. So far in 2021, the School Board has approved eight unpaid leaves of absence for SPUSD employees.

When elementary schools reopened for grades TK to 2, 3 and 4, and 5 on Thursday, Feb. 18, Thursday, Mar. 11, and Monday, Mar. 15, respectively, the vast majority of teachers had not been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Teachers have felt ignored and disappointed with the district’s communication throughout the process of planning the return to in-person school and reviewing hybrid instructional models. 

“We felt like the collaboration was just not there because the district disregarded all the input, time, energy, and feedback that teachers had provided. The district was really prioritizing the community and parents over the concerns of teachers,” an anonymous SPHS teacher said. “It seemed like the district was only interested in their agenda rather than the input of teachers, [and expects] teachers to be superheroes and make things happen no matter how difficult of a situation it puts us through.”

However, the School Board has repeatedly emphasized its commitment to ensuring the health and safety of both teachers and students in talks about reopening. 

“We’ve been listening to experts and the science, which I think is very clear,” Board member Michele Kipke said at the Tuesday, Feb. 9 meeting. “We’ve had the Department of Public Health come out and visit and they’ve agreed that we have a safe plan to ensure the safety of our kids and our teachers.”

SPMS teachers vaccinated at the SPUSD-sponsored clinic will not be fully immunized by the Apr. 8 reopening date.

Some parents have criticized teachers’ concerns over the safety of school reopening, and likened it to a lack of responsibility for their jobs. 

“Teachers are not catching the virus from students and schools with masks are a safe place to be even without vaccines,” an anonymous parent said in a public comment at the Feb. 17 Board meeting. “My optic vision of the teachers union thus far along into the pandemic, despite all the safety evidence we’ve been presented, is embarrassing. They are simply devaluing their own profession that I have always held in the highest regard. If parents could fill in so easily, why should we pay teachers more? Real valuing of your profession means admitting one, remote learning is a poor substitute for face to face interpersonal contact and two, that parents can’t do teacher’s jobs and then trying with all your might to get back to doing just that as soon as possible.”

Teachers expressed frustration with parents for belittling them and the School Board for failing to consider teachers’ perspectives in their decision-making.

“Over the year I questioned if [my] caring is reciprocated. Not by my students but by many others who are supposed to be a part of our community,” SPHS science teacher Seema Athalye said in a public comment at the Thursday, Mar. 4 board meeting. “I’ve heard too many hurtful comments written to break teachers. I’ve watched decision makers downplay our legitimate concerns. [The school board] refused to even engage in a conversation with us, unable to extend to us the basic humanity we extend to hundreds of young people everyday. When we express what we need we are vilified. We are bullied and told we simply don’t matter enough to be heard. It’s frustrating and disheartening but everyday we keep going because we care. We won’t give up on our students; please don’t give up on us.”

SPHS teachers are currently meeting with site administrators to select a hybrid instructional model for the Apr. 15 return date. They have reviewed a total of 10 models thus far, though many are similiar in consisting of one all-remote day per week. The faculty is expected to make a decision on the hybrid schedule the week of Mar. 15, after which the School Board will need to approve it.

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