When Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered school districts to remain closed for in-person instruction in counties where coronavirus cases are spiking, some California teachers felt relieved. But now, several school districts are requiring teachers to conduct distance learning from their physical classrooms, sparking new fears as COVID-19 cases continue to climb across the state.

Earlier this summer, school districts considered bringing students and teachers back on campus for the new school year, at least part time, and many teachers unions objected. State officials then released specific guidelines in July about when a school or district can resume in-person instruction. Protests are now reemerging, this time among teachers being asked to livestream instruction from their empty classrooms.

San Jose Unified is one of those districts that plans to start its school year on Aug. 12 with teachers on campus while students stay home.

“Someone is going to get sick doing this, there is no doubt in my mind,” said Victoria Canote, a third-grade teacher at Trace Elementary School in San Jose Unified. “I think it defeats the purpose of distance learning.”

California schools are required to provide distance learning if they are located in counties on the state’s monitoring list due to increases in coronavirus cases. Schools can reopen for in-person instruction once they are off the list for 14 days, according to the California Department of Public Health guidance for school reopening released on July 17.

But the guidance has not completely erased concerns among teachers who may have to teach from empty classrooms this fall. Whether districts require teachers to conduct distance learning from campus is a local decision in California, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said in a public briefing last week.

“School districts need to work with their employee groups to find some way to make an accommodation for those who have an underlying health condition,” Thurmond said. If possible, he added, districts should give them the opportunity to work remotely.

Newsom weighed in on the issue Monday, saying district leaders and labor unions should collaboratively decide whether school teachers should be required to conduct distance learning from their classrooms.

“I don’t believe anyone should be forced to put their lives and health at risk,” Newsom said. “If people feel their lives and health is being put at risk, it is incumbent on us to call that out.”

San Jose Unified's plans

San Jose Unified officials want teachers to work from their classrooms so they have a steady Wi-Fi connection, tech support and access to classroom materials. They also believe it will help create a more consistent learning environment for students by allowing them to see their classrooms even if they aren’t on campus, said Stephen McMahon, deputy superintendent of San Jose Unified.

Accommodations will be available for teachers with underlying health conditions putting them at high risk of contracting COVID-19, or if they are caregivers to someone who is, McMahon said.

“All teachers will have a safety protocol to follow while on campus,” said Lili Smith, public information officer for San Jose Unified. “Should a teacher feel they are not able to be on campus, our HR department will work with them to set up accommodations to best meet their individual needs.”

Even with safety procedures, some teachers are fearful of returning to campus while coronavirus cases are climbing and want the option to teach from home.

“There are many districts that are not requiring teachers go in and saying you can do it from home,” said Canote, noting that some teachers would prefer to work in their classrooms, but many prefer to work from home. “This is a huge district, so you open a lot of people to a lot of risk.”

Other school districts take different approach

While some school districts are still negotiating the issue, districts such as South San Francisco Unified and Fresno Unified are offering teachers the option of working from their classrooms or from home. And last week, following objections from the local teachers’ union, Los Angeles Unified agreed to drop a district proposal that would have had teachers work from their empty classrooms.

L.A. Unified on Monday announced it reached an agreement around distance learning, which will include a mix of live instruction and independent work for students from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., with at least 90 minutes of daily live instruction.

“We are gratified that the district abandoned its risky proposal to require all educators to teach from school sites,” said Arlene Inouye, bargaining co-chair for United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing more than 30,000 L.A. Unified teachers and staff. “This will help protect the health and safety of our members, especially those with health conditions or at-risk family members at home.”

Further north, in Mendocino County, Ukiah Unified School District is also preparing for full distance learning when school starts Aug. 17, and teachers there are also required to lead instruction from their classrooms while students stay home.

Superintendent Debra Kubin said district officials want teachers on campus in order to offer teachers stable Wi-Fi in their rural community, as well as to give students a chance to see and feel connected to their classrooms that ideally they will return to later in the school year.

‘For the most part, teachers will be in an empty classroom’

Kubin added that the district will provide exceptions and accommodations for teachers who obtain a medical note saying they are at high risk of contracting COVID-19.

“For the most part, teachers will be in an empty classroom,” Kubin said. “We also put a lot of safety measures in place for our staff who have shared workspaces. We installed plexiglass and purchased air purifiers for classrooms and office buildings. We are doing daily cleaning and disinfection.”

But some teachers say bringing staff back on campus even in separate classrooms poses an unnecessary risk, especially for those with preexisting health conditions.

Last week, about 50 teachers and community members part of Ukiah Unified rallied outside their district services center demanding the district provide teachers with the option to work from home during distance learning. Union leaders are preparing to continue demonstrations if conditions and plans don’t change.

“They are still demanding that we teach from school-empty classrooms,” Ukiah Teachers Association President Terry D’Selkie said on Monday. Some teachers are now seeking family leave through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires some employers to provide paid sick leave or expanded medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19, she said. “Many teachers are filing for the federal FFCRA family leave act. We might have more teachers file than the district can get substitutes.”

District and union leaders were slated to negotiate Tuesday night whether teachers should be required to be on campus during distance learning. “We are going into this hopeful,” said D’Selkie.

Teachers in Manteca Unified School District near Stockton also held a rally last week in protest of the district’s plan to have them return to campus for distance learning.

Ken Johnson, president of the Manteca Educators’ Association, told the Daily Record, “Like all teachers, we want to be in the classroom with our students, but we want it to be as safe an environment as possible for everyone.”

Across California, teachers are organizing locally to push for more stringent thresholds before both students and teachers can return to campus.

Harley Litzelman, a history teacher at Skyline High School in Oakland Unified, launched an effort this summer demanding that schools not reopen until the county they are located in has been without any increase in COVID-19 cases for 14 consecutive days.

Newsom’s order meanwhile says schools can reopen if they are off the state’s watchlist for two weeks, which would require meeting a set of criteria that includes reaching less than 100 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period.

More than 90,000 people have since signed a petition in favor of a stronger threshold and additional supports for teachers and students. Groups of teachers in Los Angeles, the Central Valley, Central Coast, San Diego and other areas have called for similar requirements in their local districts, as well as in several other states, including Mississippi and Tennessee.

Litzelman said districts should not require teachers to work from their classrooms, but should give teachers that option if they prefer it. “What they are doing is a form of bodily control. It’s truly about power,” he said.

Teachers union threatens strike

Teachers rallying for stricter reopening thresholds got support last week from the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest teachers union, which announced it would support a strike if its 1.7 million members had exhausted all other negotiating tactics with their districts for a safe return.

The union is pushing for schools to not reopen physical classrooms until coronavirus transmission rates in a community are below 1% and average daily positive test rates stay below 5%. That will be difficult for many districts to achieve, however. Only two of the top 10 largest districts in the U.S. could reopen under those guidelines, a New York Times analysis found.

“Even if you don’t have any health concerns, there is no telling you won’t get sick,” said Canote, the San Jose Unified teacher. “I shouldn’t be worried about losing my job or dying on the job.”

Story originally published by EdSource.