The Maxwell Unified School District Board of Trustees declared last week that teachers and students together in a classroom setting is essential to the education, mental health, and wellbeing of children.
But without the support of the teachers, members of the powerful California Teachers Union, the tiny school district has virtually no hope of getting teachers or students back to school anytime soon.
While the school district, like most throughout the state, is now preparing to start the new school year using a distance-learning model, the Maxwell Unified School District board had hoped to use the waiver provision from the state that would have exempted the elementary school from closure.
Maxwell Superintendent Summer Shadley, at the July 29 board meeting, said the district received the waiver application on July 23, but the teachers suddenly balked at returning to school unless the district can guarantee their safety.
“I was sort of blindsided by that,” said Shadley, who was fully prepared to apply for the waiver to allow for in-person education for the younger students.
According to the California Department of Public Health framework for reopening in-person learning at the elementary school, Colusa County health officers would have the authority to grant the waiver if safety protocols were met. However, cooperation would be needed from the district’s public employee unions and parent organization.
Shadley said the district had the support of only two, but that she would continue working with the teachers to get them on board.
In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom last month, the California Teachers Union said additional money was needed to address the growing needs to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, and that many districts did not have the resources to maintain proper physical distancing, provide personal protective equipment, virus testing and tracing, adequate ventilation with no recirculated air, and proper cleaning.
“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,” the CTA letter states.
But Maxwell officials said they have been provided funding from a variety of sources, including $325,000 from the federal government, which the district plans to invest largely in the Colusa County Office of Education EduNet technology so that all students would eventually have internet access.
Business Director Daniele Wilson said there were also other “pots” of money, including state funding for mental health, nutrition, staff development, and programs that mitigate the loss of learning students suffer from not being in school.
“It is anything COVID related that you can think of,” Willson said.
Trustee Kelly Haywood said the school board is willing to support a healthy environment, even if that means plexiglass on the tables, plexiglass on the desks, and students “in bubbles.”
“Whatever it is we need to do to get teachers back in the classroom, we are going to bend over backwards to make that happen,” Haywood said. “Ninety percent of the community want their kids back in school, and the CDC came out and said it is more harmful for kids not to be in the classroom than be in the classroom.”
But teachers across the state are not only balking about returning to school with students, many are now refusing to go to work at all, and are asking instead to teach from home. Whether that decision is strictly tied to money, it remains to be seen.
Shadley said the district would continue negotiating with the teachers union to at least get them into their classrooms for online instruction, so that students have some degree of familiarity and consistency. However, the CTA, in its letter to the governor, said that in a state of great innovation and wealth, they should not have to put teachers or students in harm’s way.
“We should not compromise on funding or school safety in the home of the greatest number of billionaires in the country, who have increased their net worth by 25 percent during the first three months of the pandemic. We encourage you to adopt additional revenues, such as suspending corporate tax credits and exemptions of imposing a tax on the wealthiest billionaires to help our communities survive.”
Maxwell Unified School District has now pushed the first day of school to Aug. 19, from its original Aug. 12 date, in order to continue negotiating with the teachers to accommodate their safety.
While Maxwell Unified School District teachers and staff have resisted the use of face coverings since the CDC recommendation, and just a few weeks ago sat or stood shoulder-to-shoulder without masks in the small district board room to protest budget cuts, Shadley said the district would try to address what safety concerns they now have.
“If there are concerns and there are things they need, we can remedy those to make them feel comfortable so they will come back to work,” Shadley said. “We just have to do what is best for kids.”
Haywood said she was willing to accept whatever teachers decide based on their own personal health concerns but hoped that the union would not make it an “all or nothing” demand, as many teachers have said they would like to teach the distance learning model from their classrooms, while others said they want to teach from home.
Haywood said those who want to physically come to work had just as much right as those who didn’t.
Maxwell Unified is also looking to provide small “in-person” school hubs for special education students and remote Leesville and Stonyford students who currently have no internet availability. ■