San Jose teachers don’t feel safe returning to school, district delays in-person classes
The San Jose Unified School District is pictured in this file photo. Photo by Elizabeth Barcelos.

Despite pressure from President Donald Trump to reopen schools, San Jose teachers say they’re not willing to risk their lives amid a global pandemic.

One of San Jose’s largest school districts — the San Jose Unified School District — announced late Thursday classes on Aug. 12 will resume online only at least until Oct. 2.

“This outcome comes with major disappointments. We believe that in-person instruction, even in a limited capacity, is the best way to serve our students,” SJUSD Superintendent Nancy Albarrán said in a statement, adding that administrators are “gravely concerned” about the widening opportunity gap for vulnerable students disproportionately affected by the decision.

“We are grieved by the emotional toll on our students from being unable to see their classmates and teachers face-to-face,” she continued. “We also accept the reality of our situation. As a country, as a state, and as a county, we have not been successful in slowing the spread of the virus and flattening the curve.”

Last week, a major San Jose teachers union urged Albarrán to postpone in-person classes due to the risk of COVID-19.

“Teachers do not feel that it is safe to return to teaching in person,” wrote Patrick Bernhardt, president of the San Jose Teachers Association, in a letter to Albarrán. “In a large majority, they are unwilling to do so at this time.”

The union also published the letter to its Facebook page last week, where it received an overwhelming amount of support.

San Jose Unified School District recently conducted a survey of students, parents and teachers on whether to open in-person instruction in the fall. According to Albarrán, 81% of teachers supported at-home instruction for students on Aug. 12 because of the contagious virus, and 80% of all respondents said they’re willing to commit to the plan for the first half of the school year.

The survey found 54% of parents agreed with having their student learn from home this year due to the coronavirus.

Santa Clara County last week set a single-day record with 262 new cases of COVID-19. By comparison, when the county first closed schools on March 13, the county reported 47 new cases.

In his letter, Bernhardt wrote that while he understands families’ and administrators’ desire to return to normalcy, the COVID-19 outbreaks in Oregon and Texas have shown that children are also susceptible to infection from the virus.

“It is increasingly clear that we will not have the public health hallmarks common to all successful European school re-openings: omnipresent testing, contact tracing, and case isolation,” Bernhardt wrote.

The California Teachers Association, which authored a similar letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond last week, identified three prerequisites for a safe transition to in-person classes:

1. Low number of cases, or a maximum of 1 case per 10,000 residents in the last 14 days
2. Testing, tracing and isolation of infected people to minimize the risk to the greater school population
3. Safe practices including social distancing, face masks, handwashing, frequent disinfecting of classrooms and symptom screening

Santa Clara County health officials in June released guidance for reopening schools in the fall. The officials, however, could not say if schools would fully reopen, maintain distance learning or a hybrid between the two.

“It will depend on the containment of COVID-19 in the months to come,” Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody explained during a news conference. “As I mentioned before, we are monitoring a number of factors.”

The guidelines include spacing desks six feet apart, requiring face coverings for everyone, keeping younger students with their classmates and canceling some activities such as choir.

San José Spotlight education columnist Chris Funk, who is the superintendent of the East Side Union High School District, said in a recent column that the costs of bringing children back to school safely are high — and the state has failed to properly prepare or fund schools for a safe return.

Funk said more than 40% of teachers, students and faculty in a recent survey at his district said they’re not comfortable returning to school until a vaccine is developed.

Bernhardt urged school administrators to dedicate the next five weeks to developing a rigorous remote learning program for all grade levels. He also noted that students in different grade levels could transition to a hybrid model between remote and in-person instruction, at different times.

“It seems likely, for example, that the safety criteria would be more easily met at elementary schools than at high schools,” Bernhardt wrote.

Albarrán said the district has invested in iPads or Chromebooks for every student, hotspots for families without internet access and video conferencing tools for teachers. It will continue providing support and training for teachers and parents.

Starting Aug. 12, teachers will livestream classes from their regular schools, take attendance roll calls and issue report cards.

“We all want to get back to school, our activities, and life outside our homes,” Albarrán said. “The surest way to do that is to heed the advice of our medical professionals so we can flatten the curve and slow the spread of the virus.”

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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