Bay Area teachers voice concerns as CA schools look to reopen

Photo of Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide plan to gradually reopen K-12 schools. The plan includes funds allocated toward heightening in-person safety measures and offering additional learning support and resources to students. (Charlie Nguyen from Berkeley, CA, United States of America, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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While school districts hope to welcome students back to in-person learning in the coming months, Bay Area teachers highlighted existing school infrastructure weaknesses and financial inequities.

On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a plan to reopen K-12 schools statewide that includes $2 billion to increase in-person safety measures at school sites and $4.6 billion to provide extra learning support and mental health services to students. Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, and Oakland Unified School District are two Bay Area school districts eligible for allocation of the budget. BUSD is currently working on finalizing its reopening model.

“The district has a large inventory of PPE in place, plexiglass barriers, air purification units and hand sanitizer in every classroom, signage throughout schools to remind students and staff of risk mitigation behaviors like hand washing and social distancing, staff and student safety training, twice monthly staff COVID-19 testing and much more,” said BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott in an email.

Touching on BUSD’s reopening approach, Berkeley High School teacher Ann Sperske noted how well prepared and transparent the district has been in the process, adding that primary schools and preschools should be prioritized.

Despite these preparations, however, there are concerns about existing inadequate infrastructure.

“We can’t just limit the class size at the secondary level without having enough classrooms and adequate ventilation for small classes,” Sperske said in an email.

Chaz Garcia, 2nd vice president of the Oakland Education Association, also voiced similar concerns.

Garcia alleged in an email that classrooms either have no windows with outside access or have windows that put students at risk to toxins from nearby factories. In addition to the inadequate infrastructure, Garcia said the opening timeline could exacerbate the equity divide.

According to a press release from the governor’s office, schools must also offer K-2 students and all high-need students in-person instruction by the end of the month. Schools that fall under the state’s red tier or better will need to offer in-person instruction to all elementary school students and at least one higher grade, the press release added.

Schools that do not meet the requirements will lose 1% of the initial funding offer each day they do not reopen, starting April 1.

“Our buildings are in disarray and require – in some cases – extensive modifications to create a safe environment. These changes take time and have been underway but are not complete,” Garcia said in the email. “If our district is unable to meet the timeline, then we will be penalized financially while surrounding districts won’t.”

COVID-19 vaccine distribution has also been a vital part of the reopening model. BUSD educators have been vaccinated for the last several weeks through a partnership with the city and through some appointments with Alameda County.

Sperske herself plans to get vaccinated this month to begin participating in group support classes, and she looks to return to full in-person learning as soon as it is safe.

“The added safety measures will make teachers and community members feel safe,” Garcia said in the email. “Though we have been working harder than ever to reach and connect with students during this unprecedented crisis, we are not social workers and do not have the expertise to navigate many of the difficult issues put before us.”

Contact Catherine Hsu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @catherinehsuDC.