Teachers troubled by school guidance

07/01/2020

Teachers are pushing back against Marin’s recommendation to reopen schools five days a week in the fall, arguing that guidelines released by the county office of education would be impossible to follow. They say that public health officials did not listen to educators before putting forward the recommendations, and that solutions should be found through the bargaining process between teacher unions and administrators.

County guidelines released on June 18 state that students can remain in regular class sizes, keeping as little as four feet of distance between students and six feet between students and teachers. Middle and high schools can combine into larger cohort sizes as long as attendance is tracked, and staff can interact with multiple cohorts in a day. Everyone is required to wear a mask and undergo a daily health screening before entering campus.

But a new coalition of all 17 teacher unions in the county, called the Marin Educators for Safe Schools, say the guidelines are based on three untrue assumptions: that kids always follow rules, that schools can fully implement the guidelines, and that for students to learn, schools must reopen for all students five days a week.

“To be clear, our members really want to be back at school with our students, but we are not willing to unnecessarily risk the safety and health of our students, our members or their families to do so,” the coalition said in a press release. “Our students deserve better.”

Anita Collison, the president of the Lagunitas Teachers Association who teaches fifth and sixth grades in the Open Classroom program, said it is frustrating that educators haven’t been more involved.

“We know what we could and could not implement, and this is something we could not implement,” she said. A hybrid model would be safer, with half of the students in the classroom and the other half doing distance learning each day, she said. The California Department of Education is also recommending this approach.

District leaders say they are receptive to the teachers’ concerns. Planning is still in the early stages, and each district has a task force planning for different scenarios and coming up with recommendations. School boards will have the final say on how to reopen.

“It’s really important that our staff is taken care of and they’re not taking undue risks for their health and their families,” Lagunitas principal Laura Shain said. 

The Lagunitas task force is creating three separate plans: a full student body for five days a week, a hybrid model with smaller cohorts, and a distance learning model.

Bob Raines, superintendent of Shoreline Unified School District, said his planning process has been collaborative, with 20 staff members involved. His goal is to be open five days a week, because surveys show most families desire a full schedule. 

“We think we can do that, based on what we know now,” he said.

At Bolinas-Stinson Union School District, a 34-person committee is coming up with proposals to present at the next board meeting. Ilie Watterson, a teacher who is chairing the committee, said two-thirds of families are interested in a hybrid model. At the same time, some parents need to send their kids to school full time to be able to work. The committee is exploring options for holding class outdoors.

For the past couple of weeks, Dr. Matt Willis, Marin’s public health officer, and Mary Jane Burke, the superintendent of schools, have pitched their vision for having students in the classroom five days a week. In online presentations attended by hundreds of people, they have stressed that the guidelines are just recommendations, and that any school can implement more restrictive strategies. 

Dr. Willis cited studies that show the risk of transmitting Covid-19 to children is far lower than the risk to adults, and that schools opening in other countries have not led to surges. One study, published in the science journal Nature on June 16, looked at infection rates among various age groups in six different countries. Researchers found that the risk of infection increases with age, and infection among people under 20 was half as likely as it is for adults. The study is supported by the well-known fact that the disease is far more dangerous for older adults.

A second study looked at 14 positive cases at high schools in Australia and how those cases spread to others. Over 800 close contacts were tested for active infection and antibodies, and just one other student was found to be infected. A similar outcome occurred at Marin’s pop-up childcare centers: only one child infected another child in 627 class days. When that transmission occurred, the entire cohort was sent home for two weeks. No adults were infected.

A desire for equity is also driving reopening plans. What kids do when they aren’t at school depends on their parents’ income, and the concern is that children will mix with each other on days they aren’t in school unless they have the ability to stay home alone. Distance learning exacerbates inequities because kids with more responsibility and less supervision at home have a harder time.

“We are organizing this not simply around the prevention of transmission of Covid-19,” Dr. Willis said. “If that were our only organizer, we’d be sheltering until there was a vaccine available.”

 

Public health officers and school leaders are hosting discussions on Thursdays in July from 9 to 10 a.m. To attend via Zoom, visit marinschools.org.