Teachers Union shakes head at VUSD schedule

Visalia Unified teachers union, district administration begin negotiations on districts A/B class schedule

VISALIA – Teachers and administrators both agree that in-person instruction is the best form of education a child can receive. But when it comes to distance learning, the two sides seem to be drifting apart.

The divide in Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) is over which schedule provides students with quality instruction time while offering teachers the time they need to prepare.

At its Sept. 22 meeting, Visalia Unified Teachers Association (VUTA) President Greg Price shared the results of a survey given to teachers about their experience with the A/B schedule, where teachers hold Zoom call meetings with half of their class in the morning and the other half in the afternoon four days per week with a mid-week break where teachers hold office hours and students work independently unless they request help from their teacher.

Price called the schedule “unsustainable” saying that teachers are working themselves to death for 12-14 hour weekdays and many weekends. He claimed hundreds of students were failing because they were overwhelmed with the amount of independent work, turned off their screens and tuned out of class due to the amount of screen time or simply logged into the meeting and then walked away from the computer. He also said most teachers have reduced their curriculum by at least a quarter and in some cases up to half. He chastised the administration for implementing the schedule without regard for teacher input and said two-thirds of elementary teachers and 87% of high school teachers wanted to change the schedule.

“We’ve already filed grievances and there are likely more to come. I shake my head daily at the decisions our administration has made,” Price said.

In an interview after the meeting, Dedi Somavia, assistant superintendent of human resources development for VUSD, said there is no hard data to determine the amount of hours teachers are working but did say it is common for teachers to work extra hours during the first few weeks of school. She also said report cards for the first period have not been issued, so there is no way to confirm how many students are getting Ds and Fs.

“The start of the school year is always difficult. We really appreciate the hard work our teachers put in each and every year,” Somavia said.

The district office said nearly 1,000 of the district’s 1,400 teachers responded to the survey intended to take their temperature on distance learning through the first eight days of the semester. In her conversations with staff, Somavia said teachers are trying to provide as much curriculum as they can without overwhelming students to ensure they understand the content.

“Teachers began the year making connections and building relations with students and have transitioned to focusing on essential standards while meeting the needs of each individual child,” Somavia said.

While he did not present them at the meeting, Price said VUTA has presented the district office with alternatives schedules for distance learning. Under the teachers union’s proposed schedule, entire classes would meet on Zoom at the same time instead of splitting each class into morning and afternoon sessions. After the lunch break, teachers will hold office hours until 3 p.m. for intervention, planning, staff development and parent contact. Wednesday would remain asynchronous learning for students and a time for site administrators to strategize with teachers on weekly interventions. VUTA also proposed an elementary schedule where teachers and students meet on Zoom every weekday with a two morning sessions being split between half of the class with breaks in between the transitions.

“I have watched my teachers struggle to survive. It didn’t have to be this way and it doesn’t have to be this way,” Price said. “I watched many students being apathetic and unmotivated and the result is that they are failing in school. The focus should always be on students. The way forward is to support students, also means support teachers. Now time for all of us to get to work.”

Somavia said neither she nor the district office ever received alternative schedules from Price for any grade level but did confirm the union has given a demand to bargain over the impacts and effects of the instruction day. She and Price met with high school teachers last week and are meeting with middle school teachers this week and the District and VUTA have resumed weekly negotiation sessions.

“The teachers agreed they all wanted more time with kids and more to prep for the online learning platform,” Somavia said.

Price read messages from two VUSD teachers whose names he did not provide.

“I feel undervalued and underappreciated. I have had a class of 35 students, 3 ISP students and 8 SST students. I have no time to plan, teach and grade, deal with issues and support students and parents in this journey with only a 15-minute plan period per day. It’s completely unrealistic. VUSD is killing its teachers and developing a culture that many do not want to be a part of. They have the power to do what is best for students and staff and they are choosing not to do so.”

Another teacher’s comments talked about the physical toll the A-B schedule has taken on teachers.

“I’m concerned about the demand on teachers being asked to sit in front of a computer for six hours at a minimum. I have experienced body fatigue, neck aches, headaches and insomnia, due to the amount of screen exposure.”

Somavia shared comments from Amanda Stannard, a sixth grade teacher at Annie R. Mitchell Elementary who had a different experience with the A/B schedule. Stannard said she was “a little hesitant” to begin the year in distance learning because she had never done that type of teaching before and worried about connecting with students over a video screen. Since school began on Aug. 13, Stannard said she has found she has connected more and spent more time with students individually due to smaller class sizes.

“Take it minute by minute and celebrate those small aspects of teaching that you got into this career for,” Stannard said. “The moment when you ask the student a question, and they respond with something that is so profound that even you, as the teacher, are amazed. That is the biggest reason to have a positive outlook on a not so great situation.”

Price ultimately asked for a new schedule to be in place by next week, something Somavia said would be impossible but that both sides are “working to make compromises.” During the board meeting, VUSD trustee Walta Gamoian asked if teachers and classified union members were being involved in the district’s talks for reopening schools under a waiver for elementary grades. Superintendent Tamara Ravalin said Somavia and the districts negotiation team had met with VUTA 13 times in person since July 1 and dozens more via phone calls and text messages.

“There is constant communication between the district and the VUTA president,” Ravalin said.

Price concluded his statements at the end of the meeting by calling for district officials to create a better schedule for students and teachers before reopening to in-person instruction.

“The way forward is to support students, which also means supporting teachers,” Price said. “Now it’s time for all of us to get to work.”

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