The governor announced the plan on Dec. 30, after acknowledging the lack of access to in-person instruction is affecting children’s learning, health, and social-emotional well-being.
Many California schools have already opened and have plans to resume full day instructions by early to mid-February. Maxwell Unified School District had planned to resume full day instruction on Feb. 1, but the teachers announced Jan. 13 that they were unwilling to return to face-to-face, full-day instruction until they are vaccinated, active cases of COVID-19 cases in Colusa County plateau, and all custodial and support positions are filled.
While school officials said they understood the union’s concern and their risk for COVID-19 transmission and illness, their self-classification as non-essential workers, in a community in which most people have remained on the job, only served to further frustrate students, parents, and district leaders who believe that remote learning, limited instruction, and lack of social interaction have failed to provide students with an adequate education.
“We’re here to educate kids,” said Board President Kelly Haywood. “That’s what we’re here for. They’re getting jipped on so many levels, and it’s just not healthy for the kids; it’s not healthy for anyone.”
California school districts across the state said moving ahead to reopen schools is based on a November 2020 report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reported, nationally, the proportion of mental health-related visits to hospitals and emergency departments for children aged 5-11 year and adolescents aged 12-17 years increased by approximately 24 percent and 31 percent, respectively, compared with those in 2019.
“The CDC, the health people, everyone has come out and said kids need to be in school,” Haywood said. “They are just not getting the education and the quality of education that they deserve. I understand that teachers are conserned about getting the coronavirus, but we have doctors and nurses and people in hospitals going to work everyday because that is what their job is: to show up and care for sick people.”
Newsom said he would like to see all schools open by mid-February, with distance learning still an option for parents and students, and has requested $2 billion in one-time Proposition 98 General Fund dollars be available at the beginning of February to augment resources for schools to offer in-person instruction safely. The funding is to be available on a per-public basis for all county schools, school districts, and charter schools that are open for in-person by specific dates.
According to Newsom, the funding can be used for any purpose that supports in-person instruction, including expanding COVID-19 testing to teachers and students, purchasing personal protective equipment, improving ventilation and safety for indoor and outdoor learning spaces, for social and mental health, and for salaries for teachers and classified staff providing and supporting in-person instruction.
“Offering as many California students in-person instruction as safely and as quickly as possible must be a team effort,” said Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, in a statement. “All of us agree that, even during a global pandemic, learning is non-negotiable, and students learn best when they can be safely receiving instruction in school.”
Maxwell Elementary School was the first school in Colusa County to return to limited in-person instruction, followed by Princeton, Arubuckle, and Colusa. Returning to the classroom at all was considered a monumental feat, after the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers pressured educators not to return at all until all schools, including urban and those in poor communities of color, could reopen with a universal safety plan of the highest standards in place.
Maxwell teachers, overall, said they would like to be back in school, but are planning to hold to their convictions despite the challenge of providing both in-person and remote learning.
While the risk of severe COVID-19 illness and death is extremely rare for children and healthy individuals, Katie Mathis, who is both a Maxwell teacher and parent of two young children, said there is more to the coronavirus risk than the possibility of getting sick, mildly or otherwise.
Mathis said the concern was also that a possible and swift spread of COVID-19 through their small district could result with all the teachers being quarantined at one time, resulting in a greater need for substitute teachers, which are greatly in short supply.
“I think the concern is the case numbers at this point are the highest they’ve ever been for our county, and that’s unsettling for us because we know it’s here and it’s spreading,” Mathis said. “Why are we going to push it and rock the boat at this point. It’s great what we’re doing right now. We’re good, and I think that is where the fear lies. When is it going to get to us? Thankfully it hasn’t yet. We’ve been pretty good, but we feel that it is coming.”
School board officials said they do not discredit the teachers’ concerns, or their efforts so far to return to in-person instruction on a limited basis, but they believe students and staff would be safer in school with safety measures in place than having so many kids out of school and socializing together.
“We are very grateful that we are back to in-person teaching,” said Haywood, hoping the teachers would reconsider a full reopening on Feb. 1. “I just feel our kids are getting jipped on their education.”
Haywood said she understood teachers’ fear, but felt if teachers were truly afraid of the virus they would not be out and about, gathering socially, or shopping in stores. She also felt that 50 percent of the teachers, like the general population, will decline the vaccinations when they are available.
“It’s a virus,” she said. “It’s going to go around. Unless you are going to lock yourself up in your house, which I know some of you are, you’re going to get it.”
The school board asked Superintendent Summer Shadley to continue negotiating with the union to find a path to full time classroom instruction.
Meanwhile, Newsom said he expects all schools could be open soon and that additional funding would be allocated for summer school programs to help combat nine months of learning loss.
Next year’s education funding is also expected to be the highest it’s ever been. ♣