Teachers rally for choice

Jul 29, 2020

July 28, 2020 — Over the weekend, Mendocino County was placed on the state’s covid-19 watchlist,* which means all schools must open with remote learning. Now a sticking point in the labor negotiations is whether teachers should be allowed to decide if they’ll keep working from home, or if they’ll have to teach remotely from their classrooms. The classified union signed an agreement on July 21, which includes the expectation that most of them will report to work on site, according to a statement from the district.

On Monday morning, about 35 teachers and supporters gathered outside the district office on Orchard Street in Ukiah in a show of support for teacher choice during a meeting between negotiating teams for the district and the teachers’ union. 

Terry D’Selkie, an elementary school science teacher and the president of the Ukiah Teachers Association, said the union has sent out multiple surveys to its membership. Of 144 teachers who responded on July 17, she said 93.8% wanted to have a choice about teaching from home or the campus. More than half of those said they’d choose to teach from home. 39.6% had no preference, and 6.3% said they wanted to teach from the campus. “So now we’re at the point where they still want all the adults back on the campus, without any children, and we would like to have a choice,” D’Selkie said. “Some of us still don’t feel like it’s safe to be on campus...and we have many classrooms at this point that would have several adults in them, and we know what’s happened in Arizona with that.” D’Selkie was referring to Kimberley Byrd, a first grade teacher in Arizona who died last month after she shared a classroom with two other teachers during a virtual summer school session, with no children present. The teachers thought they were taking enough precautions to stay safe, but they all three got the virus, and Mrs. Byrd, who had a number of underlying health conditions, including lupus, diabetes, and asthma, died.

Jenness Hartley is a special education teacher at Preschool Village, working with toddlers with severe disabilities. Most of her day is spent communicating with parents, trying to troubleshoot their difficulties. She also spends a lot of time delivering meals and materials to poverty-stricken families who often live in tiny cramped quarters with lots of people. She shares a classroom with two other teachers, in addition to about ten teachers’ aides. She knows the school administration would never expect so many people to work in one room, “but instead of administration spending all this time and effort trying to figure out where to put us, we could be spending effort on finding creative ways to help our families in real ways,” she opined, while shaking a tambourine at passing cars to elicit honks of support. “Teachers are kind of left with a lot of the social work that society doesn’t want to deal with, and I think we’re especially going to have to deal with that right now, because a lot of time, we’re the only people from outside the family who are reaching out and understanding the reality on the ground...so we should really just be focusing on how we can actually help them, and not insisting that everyone sit at a desk and plug in their Zoom time, which we know is not effective.” 

Another huge concern is that with schools closed, teachers don’t have anywhere to send their kids while they’re busy teaching other people’s kids remotely.

Teresita Lopez teaches third grade Spanish and English at Grace Hudson Elementary, the bilingual language academy in Ukiah. She says she needs to be able to teach from her home in Willits so she can make sure her three kids are getting what they need. “It’s hard for me to be coming every day to work, just to present myself in my classroom and teach from there, and leaving my kids behind. I need to, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I need to hire someone to be with them. So it’s super hard right now,” she said.

Negotiations will continue on Friday of this week, and there will also be an education town hall on Friday evening at 6:30pm. The district sent a statement to kzyx late Monday evening, which reads in full: 

On July 17, 2020, the Ukiah Unified School board made the difficult decision to start the school year in District-wide Distance Learning. This was based on the county's Public Health Officer's recommendation in the interest of student and staff safety. 

Despite the disappointment starting the year without students on campus, the District is resolved to provide students with the best Distance Learning experience possible. Our staff made a herculean effort in the Spring to implement Distance Learning in a crisis and with little time to transition. However, the District has heard from many parents who were disappointed in their students' experience with Distance Learning in the Spring and feel confident that UUSD can provide a better experience this Fall. Additionally, the District has a responsibility to provide a safe working environment for staff. Students and staff's needs are at the forefront of what the District is working on in labor negotiations.  

The District met with the classified union, CSEA, on July 17 and July 21 and signed an agreement on working conditions on July 21. Part of these working conditions included the expectation that most staff will report to work on site.

The District has met twice with the teachers union, Ukiah Teachers Association, with discussions focusing on requiring teachers to provide Distance Learning from their classrooms without students present. 

After the initial meeting, UTA arranged a protest to occur on July 27 during the 2nd negotiations meeting. The District presented UTA with a draft agreement addressing many issues, including safety for employees, reporting to campus, accountability during Distance Learning, and training. The parties meet next on Friday, July 31, 2020, to continue their reopening negotiations. Student and staff needs are at the forefront of what the District is working on in labor negotiations.

* Updated Aug 4, 2020: Mendocino County is not on the state watchlist. On Friday, July 25, the Mendocino County Executive Office sent out a press release, saying that the California Dept. of Public Health had notified Public Health Officer Dr. Noemi Doohan that the county had been placed on the state watchlist, and that the state would post this information on July 28th. KZYX failed to independently verify the communication.