In summary

Critics don’t understand that the end of our school day is in no way the end of our workday, it’s just the end of the first shift.

By Glenn Sacks, Special to CalMatters

Glenn Sacks teaches Social Studies in the Los Angeles Unified School District, glenn@glennsacks.com. He represents United Teachers Los Angeles at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

United Teachers Los Angeles’ members voted 91%-9% last week to resist a forced return to unsafe schools, with three-quarters of UTLA’s 33,000 members participating. For nine months critics have been trying to shame us into returning. It hasn’t worked.

Some reopening advocates have been blaming teachers unions for the rise in teen suicide. Yet I’ve watched numerous students and families struggle over the past year, and in terms of causes, I’m not sure if distance learning even makes the list. 

Parents have lost jobs, seen their businesses evaporate, face possible eviction or foreclosure, and have spent their life’s savings. Our 16-year-old students are working fast-food jobs five evenings a week to help their families survive. Spouses are fighting. People are mourning loved ones lost to COVID-19 – more than half a million so far – and are isolated from their friends and social connections.

Recently, I received a heart-wrenching text from one of my seniors. She wrote: “I’m sorry if I disappoint you with this text. My family and I have been going through a lot with both my grandparents dying from COVID less than a week apart from each other this month. I thought I would be good to take the test but honestly, studying has been a little hard for me because I have just been grieving. I promise next time I’ll do better.”

The problem causing student stress is not school closures in and of themselves – the problem is COVID.

Other reopening advocates are portraying us as lazy ingrates luxuriating at taxpayer expense. Union critic Frederick Hess says since we’re enjoying our “shortened” workday, “returning to work is less appealing than the status quo” as we “are earning the same salary and benefits.”

Broadcaster John Stossel agrees, writing “Not working seems to be a big union goal.” Stossel cites our relatively modest class schedule – “Nice non-work if you can get it” – yet those limited class schedules serve parents, not teachers. 

Parents oppose having their kids online for long periods of time – class time locks up their limited number of computers and strains their internet at a time when much of the family is working online. Distance learning also forces parents to create numerous quiet zones with large blocks of quiet time. 

Hess, Stossel and other critics don’t understand that the end of our school day is in no way the end of our workday, it’s just the end of the first shift. The second shift includes researching and planning lessons, helping students, grading essays, tests and other papers, and numerous other tasks. Moreover, under distance learning we’ve had to retool all of our lessons, tests and materials, which is very time-consuming.

Teachers support United Teachers Los Angeles’ position – Los Angeles has one of the highest COVID-19 rates of any major American city, and the second highest deaths per capita in California. 

According to the Los Angeles Times: “A coronavirus variant that emerged in mid-2020 and surged to become the dominant strain in California not only spreads more readily than its predecessors, it also evades antibodies generated by COVID-19 vaccines or prior infection and is associated with severe illness and death.”

The recently-released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations on whether and to what extent schools should reopen are being misinterpreted as a green light to open all schools. Yet CNBC noted that the doctors they interviewed said these guidelines would “keep more than 90% of schools … from fully reopening.”

Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician, says, “most of the schools also are absolutely unable to put the (CDC’s) safety precautions in place.”

United Teachers Los Angeles explains that the COVID death rate among Latinos in Los Angeles is triple the rate for whites, and four times higher in the poorest areas than in the wealthiest areas. Over 70% of Los Angeles Unified School District students are Latino and, even before the economic dislocation caused by COVID, three-quarters of them lived in poverty.

Most LAUSD students don’t live in a three-bedroom house with their parents and one sibling – they live with extended families and multiple generations crowded into one- or two-bedroom apartments. For some of our students, their “bedroom” is the apartment living room.

These kids and their families are very vulnerable to the spread of this disease. If their teachers and schools don’t act to protect them, who will? 

_____

Glenn Sacks has also written about what policymakers and the public don’t understand about reopening schools.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Gary Reed with any commentary questions: gary@calmatters.org, (916) 234-3081.