COVID: Newark school board goes ‘nuclear,’ tells teachers to return to classrooms April 29
NEWARK — Schools in Newark will begin to reopen classrooms on April 29 for students who want to return, the school board decided after teachers voted twice against the move.
“It’s really time for students to come first. There’s been enough delaying,” Newark Unified School District board member Terrence Grindall said during a special meeting April 15 when the board voted 4-1 to reopen schools more than a year after they were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week, 51.4% of the Newark Teachers Association’s 253 members who voted on the reopening plan opposed it, according to union officials.
That vote marked the second time this month that union members narrowly rejected the plan, negotiated by district and union representatives after meeting more than a dozen times since February.
“My concern is once we pull this trigger, we might in many ways be at the point of no return. There is a reason why this is called the nuclear option,” board president Bowen Zhang acknowledged despite voting for the plan.
Board member Aidan Hill voted against ordering teachers to return to the classrooms, saying he thought the two sides should try again to cut a deal.
In a letter to the district community on April 16, Superintendent Mark Triplett made it clear the district has final say. “The decision whether and when to reopen schools for in-person instruction is, by law, a management prerogative,” he wrote.
The district “will continue to negotiate in good faith with NTA over negotiable impacts” of the reopening “and seek NTA’s full support to bring students back,” he wrote.
“However, time is of the essence, and it is imperative we make clear to our families that those who wish to return to in-person instruction will have the opportunity to do so,” he added.
The district, which serves roughly 5,600 students, will offer a phased-in hybrid instructional model, where students can voluntarily return to classrooms for in-person learning part of each week.
“My initial gut reaction was shock but not surprise,” Megan McMillen, vice president of the teachers union, said in an interview Tuesday about the school board’s overriding vote. “And I was angry,” she said.
“They employed the nuclear option and it has caused a bit of chaos since the vote,” she said, noting some teachers don’t know what will happen next.
The district scheduled a town hall meeting Tuesday night to discuss reopening plans with the community.
McMillen said some teachers who voted against the agreement were concerned about safety protocols for themselves and their students.
“There is a lack of confidence in the district’s ability to uphold some of their agreements,” McMillen said.
“They (teachers) don’t just want promises that things will be done, they want evidence that things have been done,” she said.
At the April 15 meeting, Triplett said the latest tentative agreement negotiated with teachers union leaders included strict cleaning and daily disinfecting protocols and assurances that the schools’ ventilation systems will use advanced filters and that there’ll be air purifiers with HEPA filters in every room.
The district says it has spent nearly $360,000 on “needlepoint bipolar ionization” technology for its ventilation systems that kills mold, viruses and allergens. Students and teachers must still wear masks and socially distance themselves from each other.
Triplett said the district has provided multiple opportunities for teachers and staff to be vaccinated against the coronavirus and has offered “unprecedented” free childcare to all staff.
McMillen said some teachers weren’t convinced by the documents shown them that the ventilation systems would work as touted.
Other teachers weren’t convinced the benefits of returning to classes now would outweigh the risks.
“For the limited number of instructional days we have remaining, this is going to cause a lot of upheaval to hard-fought wins in routine for a number of our students. There is no way to do this without disruption,” she said.
One parent, Anabel Zarate, said she is upset with the board for overriding the teachers and feels they wouldn’t have rejected the agreement without good reason.
“I trust the teachers a lot more than (Mark) Triplett,” she said.
She said she’s frustrated that Newark appears to be one of only a few districts in Alameda County still “in a state of limbo” with only several weeks of instruction left and it’s too late for students to adjust again to new plans.
“They’re going to have to learn how to navigate campuses during COVID” with masks and social distancing and new precautions, she said.
“As soon as the kids get their routines down, it’s time to go on summer break. It’s not worth the risk,” she said.
Ramon Medina, who has a daughter with special needs, said he hasn’t seen any clear plans from the district that would ensure her needs will be met if she were to return to school.
“My daughter would love to go back,” Medina said, but he’s frustrated by the district’s lack of transparency and planning.
“We’re already stressed out enough,” he said. “For them to be real vague does not help us make a decision if my daughter is going to be safe, if everyone will be safe.”