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BCSD board hears concerns from teachers about return-to-school plan, ponders its role

The board for the Bakersfield City School District unanimously voted to approve a COVID-19 safety plan at its board meeting last week, a crucial step required by the state for the district to reopen for in-person learning.  

It was the first meeting of the board since Superintendent Doc Ervin announced the district planned to open its elementary campuses for in-person learning in a Feb. 16 staff memo. Three days later he sent a community letter that postponed the return until April 8.

Last week's meeting came just as Kern County passed a new threshold created by Gov. Gavin Newsom that allows elementary schools to open on the lower end of the purple tier. But even as Newsom is working to roll out vaccines to school employees, many teachers across the state are still hesitant to return to the classroom, especially in the purple tier, before they are vaccinated and vaccines have had time to take effect.

The district meeting's open forum shone a light on BCSD teachers' hesitancy to return to classrooms. It also highlighted some confusion the board has about its role in guiding the district through the choppy waters of reopening, when case rates are in flux and so is state guidance.

Longtime trustee Lillian Tafoya said during the meeting she was wary of approving the COVID-19 safety plan while the county was still in the purple tier. Because of some miscommunication between her and the superintendent's office — for which Ervin apologized — she was under the impression that she wouldn't have to vote to approve any piece of the reopening plan at the last board meeting.

"I totally approve of everything that is in place, knowing that it is a living, breathing evolving document," she said. "However, I specifically called to ask if we were going to vote on the plan, and I was told it was only going to be presented to us."

Deputy superintendent Mark Luque said it was crucial for the board to pass the plan so the state would have time to review it and give the district time to make any changes. Without the board's authorization, the district couldn't open in April or any time soon if case rates continued their downward trajectory, he said. He emphasized that they weren't passing the entire return-to-school plan, just the COVID-19 safety plan required by the state.

Trustee Chris Cruz-Boone asked whether at a future meeting the board would pass the full return-to-school plans with dates.

Luque said a resolution passed by the board in October declaring its schools open gave Ervin the authority to decide when to reopen and close campuses as it did when cases surged in fall.

"Does that mean I don't ever have a say on the reopening as a board member?" Cruz-Boone asked. "I'm trying to get clarity, and I'm more confused."

Board President Pam Baugher said the board never votes on a specific date but it offers Ervin a "soft" and "fluid" plan. 

"We as a board are not directing Doc to say, 'We're opening this date,'" she said. "We're not doing that because he needs the flexibility to deal with the circumstances as they come up."

PUSHBACK FROM TEACHERS

During public comment, letters from teachers expressed a variety of concerns about returning to classrooms while teaching the rest virtually. Tafoya said the board received close to 200 letters from teachers who were concerned about the return. 

"The one thing that kept being repeated over and over again was we want to return to school, but we only want to return when it's safe," she said of the letters.

The board allows 15 minutes of comments on a single subject. Of those that were read, many said they were looking for rates to dip down into the red tier. Most said that they would prefer for all the staff to have a chance to receive the COVID-19 vaccine before they are mandated to return to campus. They pointed out that many of their schools are in ZIP codes highly impacted by COVID. They have not only had students with COVID, but also sent condolence letters to the families of COVID victims.

"I do not understand why now our district wishes to send its staff back and all at once without the protection available to staff members in the form of the vaccine,"  teacher Chelsea Jordan said in her letter.

BCSD has begun vaccinating its staff through its campus wellness centers this week and teachers can get doses through other allotments, though it is not clear how much of the staff will be effectively vaccinated by the time the district plans to open campuses in April.

Some teachers took issue with the hybrid model, which they said leaves little daily room for preparing lessons and limits it mostly to Wednesdays. Several said arranging child care at this point in the pandemic, when prices and demand have risen, could strain them. One teacher, Heather Tablit, asked that she be allowed to teach the distance learning portion of her day from home instead of her classroom so she could take her kids home from their distance learning.

One letter submitted to the board that was not read into the public comment came from Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association President Steven Comstock.

"I am asking you each to honor your word on a safe return to in-person instruction, which would mean allowing every staff member that chooses to be vaccinated to receive the required doses and the time needed for them to take effect," Comstock wrote. "I am also asking you to honor the commitment BCSD made to BETA that there would be no return until we entered the red, less restrictive tier."

It cited a recent survey of its members. Currently, 71 percent of its 1,093 members feel it's unsafe to return compared to 58 percent when the county was in the red tier.

It's not just about safety: 83 percent of its members said they feel "unprepared and uninformed about what teaching will look like upon returning to the classroom." And 75 percent feel "uncomfortable/highly stressed at the prospect of teaching both in-person and online in the same day." In the survey, 506 stated that they were considering taking a leave of absence, 285 due to child care issues.

Ervin responded to concerns from staff, and he mentioned that the date had been pushed back, which gives staff additional time. He said that originally some teachers expressed that they didn't want to return until they were prioritized for vaccines or until the case rate fell below 25 cases per 100,000 residents per day, which is when elementary schools are allowed to open under new state guidance. He said both those have come to pass.

"I want to remind everyone that we're not going to make everybody happy with any decision that we make with our timeline for returning to in-person instruction," he said. "Someone out there is going to be mad and not like the decision."

He said he has received letters from some teachers but many parents urging schools to reopen for in-person learning to mitigate the learning loss that is happening in distance learning. At its January board meeting, the district shared a survey showing that 51.7 percent of parents were interested in returning their students to in-person learning.

"We will make the decision based on what is in the best interest of kids in the long run," Ervin said. "I can't make every employee and every person out there happy."