Will the teachers union allow kids back in school this year?

In MDUSD, the return to the classroom has boiled down to one question- will the teachers union allow kids back in school this year? Superintendent Dr. Clark clearly stated his determination to have a hybrid agreement in place by March 15th. MDEA President Anita Johnson has just as clearly stated that MDEA is not working under any particular timeline. She also indicates that even though the negotiated MOU has already reached 50 pages (compared to 15 pages or less for many districts that have already reached agreements), there is no end in sight. MDEA has publicly stated that hundreds of protocols must be negotiated before an agreement will be reached. Furthermore, MDEA has a proposed threshold for reopening that would mean kids will not be back in the classroom this school year, this calendar year and very possibly until 2023 or beyond. To me, that is unfathomable and unacceptable.

If MDEA is truly committed to a near-term return of students to the classroom, then they should clearly state that. They could certainly agree to the March 15th date as well and identify that additional negotiation days are needed to make that happen.

I don’t take the return to campus lightly- and I certainly never did as the President of the MDUSD Board. On March 10th of last year, I informed our then Superintendent that he needed to have a plan to shut down our schools to keep our students and staff safe. When he failed to act, I let him know on March 12th that I was calling a Special meeting to close schools.

After our task forces developed plans over the summer to return to campus, we saw Covid cases begin to rise. I came out early and said we would most likely need to start the year in complete Distance Learning- this was shortly before the Governor mandated that just about every District in the state do so.

Once Districts had the ability to reopen in the fall, MDUSD took a deliberate approach. Dr. Clark, with the full support of the entire Board, recommended a plan that would start hybrid learning in January, after the holidays to make sure there was not a community surge. When there was a spike in December, MDUSD again pushed back the reopening date. Certainly there were people who wanted the reopening to happen much faster, but it seems impossible to argue that MDUSD took anything other than a safety first approach.

We are now in a much different place than we were just a couple of months ago. Highly effective vaccines are now available- teachers and staff are being vaccinated as I write this. The CDC has come out with clear guidelines for how schools can safely reopen. Other Districts are in the process of returning to campus in the Bay Area. I am not aware of a single prominent medical authority in the United States (Dr. Fauci, Dr. Ghaly, Contra Costa’s Dr. Farnitano, the CDC, the AMA, the AAP, etc.) that is recommending against the reopening of schools. In fact, they all seem to be proponents of a thoughtful, careful reopening of school campuses.

You often hear about decision making being guided by science. I’m not a scientist. Dr. Clark is not a scientist. None of the current Board members are scientists. We relied upon the guidance of federal, state and county guidelines. I do not know where MDEA came up with their guidelines or if they have cited any science official or organization that they are relying upon. To me, the idea that one person testing positive in a city in MDUSD could then prevent all MDUSD schools to be closed to in-person learning strikes me as absurd.

We should also be guided by the fact that in the year that we have been battling Covid, thankfully not a single person under the age of 18 in Contra Costa County (population over a million) has died from it. This does not mean we discount the potential long-term impacts of the disease, but it is certainly reassuring compared to our fears when the outbreak began.

Dozens of teachers and staff members have shared with me that they want to be back in the classroom with their students. They recognize that there are risks but I believe they are making an informed and educated decision. Nobody is talking about doing this in reckless or haphazard way.

This is a complex situation and it is an arduous process. In just the last few weeks, I’ve had conversations with MDUSD Superintendent Clark, MDUSD Board member Keisha Nzewi, CTA rep Dan Reynolds, SFUSD President Gabriela Lopez and Contra Costa Costa Supervisor Karen Mitchoff and published them on my NoJibberJabber website. They all had a different perspective and I learned something in each conversation.

There is zero dispute that Covid has impacted parts of our community differently. Families of color and lower income families have seen more economic hardship while also having higher rates of infection and death from Covid. That is awful, it is something we must acknowledge and it is something we must work to remedy. Many children in those families, however, are the ones who are suffering the most with distance learning due to lack of structure, support and equipment. For many of those children, school is the safest and most nurturing place they can be right now.

This isn’t about helping parents who want babysitters for their kids so they can go to yoga class and smoke weed. The comments to that effect by the Board Members in Oakley were disgusting and they were also flat out untrue for many of the families I know who are looking to return their children to a classroom.

If MDUSD and MDEA cannot reach an agreement in time to get kids back in the classroom soon (or, in the case of middle and high school- when it is permitted with the county’s move to the red tier), thousands of students are going to permanently leave this District. That should be a giant concern to everyone who is a supporter of public education. The loss of those students will mean massive layoffs of teachers and staff, slashing of programs and the closing of neighborhood schools.

The job of the teachers’ union is to represent teachers, not children. But it is the job of every single person employed by the school District to do what is best for students. And right now, MDEA and MDUSD need to make that happen.

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