California teachers unions are fighting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s suggestion that schools open this summer and making clear that they will have a say at the bargaining table.
The unions say teachers were stunned by Newsom’s suggestion Tuesday that schools could reopen in July in an attempt to help reduce learning gaps caused by the coronavirus and allow parents to return to work in a greater capacity.
In Oakland, the talk has actually been about the opposite: delaying the start of the school year — not opening schools weeks early, said Oakland Education Association President Keith Brown.
“We are very concerned about the governor’s comments. It really caught so many teachers by surprise,” Brown told POLITICO Wednesday. “The state has not issued any executive order around the opening of schools and that sort of thing must be negotiated between labor and school districts. We have heard of no such talk from the Oakland Unified School District of opening our schools earlier.”
School officials have been preparing for schools to look different in the fall due to the pandemic — likely with staggered classrooms and smaller, socially distanced student groups — but they were not prepared to rush toward a mid-summer reopening.
President Donald Trump urged governors this week to consider opening schools before the summer break to finish out the current academic year — an approach that runs counter to what state leaders and California districts have already announced. The nation’s biggest teachers unions said Tuesday they would consider strikes or major protests if schools reopen without the proper safety measures in place or against the advice of medical experts.
“It’s insane. It’s not safe to go back in July,” said Jon Bath, political action chair for the Fresno Teachers Association. “Can you imagine being with 40 kids in a room that’s 20 [feet] by 20 [feet]? As a teacher, you’re going to get it.”
Newsom has said that the state’s health care capacity and hospitalizations are stabilizing, and the state is “weeks, not months” away from modifying a statewide order that has kept Californians in their homes for nearly six weeks.
But United Teachers Los Angeles said the state should meet more of the metrics Newsom has outlined in his reopening plan, including increasing testing sites, “before setting unrealistic timelines.”
“California has led the way on flattening the curve of this deadly pandemic by prioritizing people’s health and safety. As the fifth-largest economy in the world, our leaders understand that the economy should serve the people, and not the other way around. We urge our leaders to stay the course, and caution against prematurely lifting social distancing protections by opening schools in a way that would put students, teachers and families at risk,” UTLA said in a statement.
The Sacramento City Teachers Association is also against the idea, and said that if Newsom wants to see districts open in “a timely and constructive way,” he will have to work more closely with districts and provide more resources to ensure student and teacher safety.
“There are too many unknowns to think that schools can safely reopen in July,” SCTA President David Fisher said. “And we have to let science guide our decisions about when it’s safe to reopen schools. But no matter what happens, it’s important for school districts to work constructively with teachers to produce the best outcomes for kids.”
California School Boards Association spokesperson Troy Flint said that educators are eager to get back to serving students but there’s an immense amount of planning that would need to occur before schools resume on an accelerated schedule — and health concerns abound.
“There hasn’t been sufficient consultation down to the local level,” Flint said. “There is not a clear plan for how this would take place or much of a plan at all.”
Jesse Melgar, Newsom’s press secretary, said that the governor is committed to working with local leaders on this, as well as the Legislature and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.
“The governor remains committed to transparency and early collaboration as we navigate this crisis. In that spirit, the governor started the next set of conversations about safely resuming in-person instruction in schools, through summer programs or an earlier start of the school year,” Melgar said in an email Wednesday.
When asked about a potential summer school start date, Riverside County Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser said Newsom’s comments caught people off guard but that some level of instruction could be “entirely possible” in July. But Kaiser warned of the unknowns regarding how children may act as vectors for the coronavirus despite low numbers of pediatric cases.
“Even if instruction is able to start then — the governor hasn’t said for certain that would be the case — you would certainly need to keep in mind that things such as social distancing and other kinds of classroom precautions will need to be in place,” Kaiser said. “This will have important impacts as far as class size, level of instruction, school lunch times. We might have to stagger some classes and may have to stagger some recesses so we don’t have a whole bunch of kids out on the playfield all at once.”
Thurmond said that Newsom’s announcement on Tuesday was the first he had heard of schools potentially opening in the summer, but on Wednesday announced that he is asking state school chiefs across the country to “examine considerations and best practices” for reopening.
“We share the governor’s aspirations for re-opening our schools as soon as possible. If we are going to do this, it can only be done when we are sure we can protect the health and safety of everyone in our school communities,” Thurmond said.