In summary

It’s the government’s responsibility to keep schools open by providing the funds necessary to make schools safe for students and teachers.

By Jenny Silva, Special to CalMatters

Jennifer Silva serves on the boards of the Redwood High School Parent Teacher Student Association, the Tamalpais High PTSA and the Oxbow School Board of Trustees,

Schooling has been an ongoing challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

School closures harm families and students. Remote learning is less effective than in-person, especially for younger students. School closures require many parents to reduce work hours or leave the workforce entirely. Other than addressing the pandemic itself, the government’s top focus should be opening our schools and keeping them open. Yet, many blame unions for current school closures.

Keeping schools open is our government’s responsibility. Our state and local governments set the rules for which organizations can reopen when and under what conditions. The government sets guidelines for risk mitigation. The government can provide the funds necessary to make schools safe for students and teachers. 

Everyone is frustrated. One of the reasons that many districts have not opened sooner is that the negotiations between teachers’ unions and the districts have been slow and contentious. Many fault the unions for the state of negotiations. 

Why is the failure to come to terms for reopening being placed on the teachers’ shoulders? 

There is often an assumption that teachers are being unreasonable in their demands to return to in-person learning. This assumption doesn’t match the facts. 

Teachers are working harder than ever. They have had to completely redesign curricula and learn how to teach remotely. Email volume outside of class is dramatically higher. Teachers do not want to teach remotely because it’s easy. They want to be remote because they are concerned about their health. 

There is good reason for teachers to be concerned. In-person school, even in a hybrid model, requires interactions with many students and personnel daily, especially for high school teachers. 

Many schools have inherent challenges in adjusting their systems for COVID-19, including over-crowded classrooms and poor ventilation. California has underinvested in its schools for decades, and many facilities are in poor condition. 

Many teachers have pre-existing conditions that put them at greater risk for COVID-19 complications. While schools don’t seem prone to super-spreading events like restaurants and churches, they are clearly far more risky than retail outlets and individual outdoor activities.

The unions should be fighting for teachers to have safe working conditions. It’s not only public school teachers demanding to be protected. Most private schools are going far beyond the changes proposed for public schools to protect their teachers, including outdoor classrooms, smaller classes and frequent testing. Private school administrators are explicit that they are going above and beyond state guidelines because they have to retain their teachers. 

Public schools face the same pressure. Even if the unions did not exist, public schools cannot reopen without the support of their teachers. Teachers are not forced to teach, and if teachers do not feel safe, some will choose not to teach. 

Our public schools cannot function if they lose even 5% of our teachers, due to either concerns over working conditions or illness. California has a widespread, long-standing shortage of teachers. Unions have lost significant power over the past 40 years, and, as a result, have been unable to negotiate compensation packages and working conditions appealing enough to bring sufficient teachers into the profession. 

This is not to shift the blame to the districts. The districts are under tremendous pressure from parents and want to reopen as well. But, limited resources restrict what districts can offer. Ultimately, our failure to invest in schools is causing this conflict. 

Elected officials need to feel pressure to provide the necessary resources. It is all a matter of priorities. The government provided a $25 billion bailout to the shareholders of airlines, yet only provided $13.5 billion for schools. Why are the shareholders of airlines prioritized over the safety of our teachers? It takes us, the voters, to hold our elected officials accountable to open schools safely. 

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