Visalia Unified Teachers Association says elementary campuses are not safe to reopen for in-person instruction
VISALIA – Tulare County’s largest school district has submitted their waiver for K-6 students to return to in-person instruction.
Visalia Unified School District’s waiver was approved by the school board at its Oct. 13 meeting and officially submitted to Tulare County Public Health on Oct. 14. The waiver application is available for public review at bit.ly/3iFBikN. The 262-page document includes the district’s reopening plan approved by the school board during the summer and a more site-specific plan outlined in its responses to the county’s waiver form. While most of the document is review for anyone following state guidance on reopening schools, Tulare County requested the district make several changes to cleaning and disinfection, visitor policies, pre-screening practices, mask requirements, and meal program. The changes appear in yellow on the waiver application posted to the district’s website. Some of the more significant changes are listed below:
- All classrooms, offices, and restrooms will be disinfected and fogged twice daily: each evening and in the middle of the day between student groups.
- Only essential visitors will be allowed access to campus in a very limited capacity.
- Every person screened will be asked about any recent contact with a positive COVID case and if they are currently being tested. Fatigue, congestion and runny nose were added to the list of symptoms flagged for dismissal.
- Banning the use of multi-person play structures.
- Giving students lunch meals as they leave campus instead of allowing them to eat on campus. Superintendent Tamara Ravalin said VUSD students will be provided a grab-n-go lunch and the following day’s breakfast as they leave campus. This relieves school’s from the hardy task of finding enough space to socially distance students for a lunch hour and prevents students from taking their masks off to eat in the classroom.
- Requiring any students with symptoms during the day to be quarantined in an isolation room while wearing a mask. Students must be in the isolation room until they can be released to a parent. Staff will be asked to leave immediately after presenting symptoms. Jim Sullivan, VUSD’s administrator of Family and Community Engagement, said this protocol isn’t any different than normal operation procedures. When teachers are sick, they go home. Normally an administrator would finish out the day with their class, but during COVID both of the teacher’s A and B schedule classes would be dismissed to quarantine for two weeks.
- Every room must have a posted max capacity allowing for social distancing.
- The district must test 25% of all staff every two weeks at no cost to the employees. VUSD Director Health Services Susie Skadan, a registered nurse, said an outside contractor will be handling testing for the district.
- In the event of a positive case in a cohort, the teacher or aide will likely need to quarantine which may affect staffing for the other cohort, possibly forcing those students to transition to distance learning. If it is the teacher or aide that is positive, both cohorts will quarantine.
“We are constantly updating plans and adapting to new guidelines from public health officials,” Skadan said. “We have worked well in collaborating with Tulare County Public Health during the waiver process.”
While many things are harder for larger school districts to combat a virus’ spread through large gatherings, VUSD does have an advantage when it comes to quarantining after someone tests positive. VUSD was the only district to offer the services of their school nurses to assist the Tulare County with contract tracing over the summer. The dozen nurses who assisted county staff will now serve as the managers of the district’s contact tracing team including 49 school nurses who received contact tracing training as part of a statewide program.
“Many school districts don’t have nurses and not nurses with contact tracing experience, so that is really plus for our district,” Skadan said.
Due to elementary school parent conferences and the Thanksgiving holiday, VUSD’s target date for elementary students to return to school is Nov. 30, 2020, but not everyone is in favor of a return to in-person instruction.
The Visalia Unified Teachers Association (VUTA) and the local California School Employees Association (CSEA) chapter were consulted on the plan on Sept. 23, 30 and the teachers’ association again on Oct. 6. VUSD held a parent forum on Sept. 8 and presented the item in open session at their board meetings on June 9 and 23, July 14 and 28, Aug. 11 and Sept. 22. Sullivan said all of the district’s principals were behind the reopening plan.
“Once it is approved, we are looking forward to collaborating with teachers to continue to educate our students,” Sullivan said.
Despite its involvement in the process, VUTA President Greg Price has stated publicly he does not believe it is safe for teachers to return to school and criticized the district for it’s A/B schedule requiring teachers to work longer days. In an Oct. 2 email obtained by The Sun-Gazette, Price issued a cease and desist order as well as a demand to bargain in response to the district’s announcement that special education teachers were to report to their school sites on Oct. 5 for one-on-one, in-person instructions under the district’s cohort plan for vulnerable populations. Price sent a second email on Oct. 7 demanding to negotiate the impacts and effects of the district’s in-person assessments and services and for documentation on the names, dates and types of assessment done during the VUSD’s initial attempts at in-person education, a copy of the district’s injury and illness prevention program, liability insurance, school safety plan, cleaning products and information on the ventilation system for each classroom and workroom at every campus.
“When we physically return to school campuses, it needs to be planned and deliberate with safety and public health at the forefront of all decision-making and with the involvement of educators,” Price stated in the second email.
The union agreed in principle to a return to school in August when it signed a “Side Letter of Agreement” with the district. The agreement states teacher transfer/reassignments to distance learning are temporary and were done “in order to be in compliance with state/local guidelines for the safe reopening of schools.” Transfers were defined as a teacher being assigned to a different school “to accommodate the hybrid model.” The document was signed by VUSD Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Dedi Somavia and VUTA President Greg Price on Aug. 7, 2020. The first in-person learning for vulnerable populations took place on Oct. 12 and all sites opened to in-person learning in small cohorts on Oct. 19, according to Ravalin. Cohorts of students with disabilities began at campuses this week.
That same day, Price also signed a “Reopening in Distance Learning Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) agreeing to open the school year in distance learning but acknowledging “there is a need to transition students and families to return back to school physically if it can be done according Public Health Guidance.”
In her response to Price’s email, Somavia wrote, “Nowhere in the MOU did the parties agree the District could not plan for or move forward with In-Person Reopening absent further agreement with VUTA.” Somavia continued, “The terms of the MOU are entirely consistent with the District’s stated position during bargaining and at public board meetings that it would need the flexibility to ‘toggle’ between distance learning and in-person instruction as public health conditions and corresponding guidance allowed.”
CDPH has issued guidance on Aug. 24 on how schools can reopen for cohorts specifically for those students requiring physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, deaf and hard of hearing students, as well as homeless and foster youth.
“With all of this in mind, and for the reasons discussed in this letter, the District will continue in-person one-to-one services, and will continue to meet with BUTA to bargain any effects of this decision not already addressed by the Reopening MOU,” Somavia responded in the district’s Oct. 13 letter.
The final stage of this planning is to collect information on which students will return to school for in-person instruction and which students will remain on full time distance learning. Elementary school principals sent out a short survey to parents the week of Oct. 15 to collect this information. The district has only received responses from a little more than one-third of elementary school parents with the surveys expected to close at the end of the week.
“Parents who have not responded to the survey by the end of this week will be receiving phone calls to determine which option they are selecting,” Ravalin said.
More than just an update of surveys conducted earlier in the pandemic, Ravalin said this survey is asking parents to commit to in-person or online for the rest of the 2020-21 school year. When schools reopen, tentatively slated for Nov. 30, students who have selected the in-person option must continue to go to campus Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday of each week through the end of the school year next June, with the exception of holidays, symptoms and sickness. Likewise, families who select the online option will remain on distance learning even after schools reopen to in-person instruction. Once parents make their choice the real work begins to match the number of students in either option to the number of teachers willing to work in those environments.
“This survey is about what each, individual family wants,” Ravalin said. “But once they choose, that is a commitment they are agreeing to for the rest of the year.”