Teachers claiming to represent a majority of their colleagues within the Los Alamitos Unified School District’s two middle schools and Los Al High School, told the board this week that they want additional safety measures and more COVID testing before returning to their classrooms.
Elementary students returned to their campuses last week in a so-called ‘hybrid’ setting while the district’s two middle schools are set to return to their campuses Sept. 22, and Los Al High is preparing to reopen Sept. 29.
While Supt. Dr. Andrew Pulver expressed confidence in the reopening plan, a total of seven high and middle school teachers addressed the LAUSD board at its most recent meeting to express their overall dissatisfaction with elments of the plan.
Many of the teachers suggested the Los Al reopening was “rushed” or “pushed to reopen” and that the lack of information provided by the administration to teachers made them uncomfortable and “feeling unvalued.”
“We are not comfortable or confident with the level of preparedness” said Los Al basketball coach Eddie Courtemarche. Therefore, he said the teachers are seeking to “proactively assert ourselves in the discussion on how to safely return to the classroom.
“The hours away from your families were”not lost on us, but I believe too often, especially under chaotic and stressful circumstances, the human element gets lost in the shuffle,” he said.
Courtemarche said the teachers are “not here just as teachers, but as husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.” He called working in classrooms a “most vulnerable environment.”
Another teacher, a 21-year veteran teacher at Oak Middle School, Juliette Gardner, was more direct.
“The competition to reopen is not a game we should be playing,” she said.
Gardner and the other teachers presented frank assessments to the board regarding the LAUSD “Reopening and Safety Plan” developed by staff and a committee of teachers.
“We have the right to be informed,” said Gardner.
“While science experts tell us that social distancing is our best defense,” said Gardner, “it will be difficult, if not impossible, to socially distance the required 6 feet for middle and high school students,” she warned… “even when only half of our students will be attending class.”
Math teacher Caley Strong said “I think we can come up with a better model than what we are providing to our students.” Strong said moving to a hybrid model will actually cut the amount of instruction time with his students.
He also suggested the reopening plan needs work. “The details have not been ironed out,” he suggested, adding that “only after the details have been figured out should we think about reopening.”
He provided no specifics but each speaker was limited to three minutes.
Teacher Mossy Kennedy told the board he had received correspondence from the administration on “shared responsibility.”
“With this notion of ‘shared responsibility’ in mind, I would ask the board and the district to provide a detailed accounting of money received from the CARES Act funding,” said Kennedy.
“It would be in all parties interest to know exactly how much has been received,” he said, as he also suggested the teachers wanted to know how the district “intended to use these funds.”
Spanish teacher Lisa Sragovicz asked the board to “forgive us for being stressed out” but to please understand that “information is not getting to us.”
Sragovicz said she knows college students that are being COVID tested every week. “Why can’t we do that,” she asked, noting that some of her students “contracted COVID on July 4 …so we know it (COVID) is in our community.”
Teacher Brandon Hart protested that “we are limited in our ability of knowing known cases as the system relies of self-reporting of COVID positive cases.”
“Therefore,” he said, “there can be no assurances to any family who sends their child to school or to any employee who goes to work that they will be informed if they’ve been exposed to a direct contact.”
Hart also questioned safety measures for district infrastructure. “We also have great concerns about our HVAC systems ,” he said. “This evening I was provided information about serious limitations in our HVAC systems ability to support maximally safe indoor environments,” he told the board.
While the Los Al reopening plan meets the “minimum legal requirements,” said Hart, “is the minimum the best we can do?”
“It should not be a rush to reopen,” said Los Al High School English and swimming teacher Leslie Weber, “it should be a rush to be safe.”
Weber went a step further saying teachers are “starved for information” about testing that “does not seem to be available.”
“The default seems to be about meeting the minimum legal threshold as opposed as doing what’s right for everyone,” said Weber. “We feel this undermines our district’s priorities,” she added.
Moreover, Weber said while “it’s great to see the changes on the elementary school campus, on the high school campus we haven’t seen any difference.”
“We don’t know what we’re bringing home and exposing our families to, and even further, the next day, we don’t know what we’re exposing our own students to,” she told the board.
Weber said more than 80 percent of Los Al High teachers responded to the latest survey, revealing ‘rare’ agreement.
According to Weber;
• 96% of those teachers indicated that they would want to be informed of a positive test in her classroom.
• 87% indicated that they would want to be informed of exposure.
• 91% want to know before they leave campus if they’ve been exposed that day.
• 90% of the teachers do not have confidence in the plan to manage positive cases within the campus.
• 80% are not confident in the plans to open safely.
• 80% indicated they would like the district to report positive tests for affected staff and students.
“We need to work together to maintain open lines of communication,” she suggested.
Another teacher, Drew Sells, said “I’m here asking for your commitment to the maximum testing and tracing transparency.”
Following the teachers’ statements, board president Meg Cutuli informed them that a state law called the “Brown Act” prevented the board from discussing or acting on any item not appearing on the agenda.
“So what I will do is ask Dr. Pulver if he would like to say anything, and then we can direct him to look into these concerns,” said the board president.
Pulver said he was very proud of the fact that “we spent the entire summer…in a strong collaborative effort engaging teachers through this process.
In addition, Pulver said “many of them (teachers) who are in this room tonight were part of our committee to help us create surveys and look at the different models.”
As far as testing, “it’s not lost on us absolutely…if I was in a room with an individual who tested positive for COVID, I would want to know,” said Pulver.
Nevertheless, the superintendent said the plan would evolve in a “collaborative” manner, suggesting inclusion, but said the Orange County Health Care Agency was responsible for leading the testing and contact tracing portions of the plan.
“We will follow their lead,” he added.
Pulver recounted a meeting with the Los Alamitos Faculty Forum who made similar requests and said ”I am confident we’ll be able to notify any staff member if they’ve been exposed to a student within their classroom.”
He also suggested the potential of Los Al, and other systems, working or consulting with an outside agency on testing practices.
Answering teacher concerns about sanitization, he said custodians will have a checklist so teacher will have a confidence if the custodian had cleaned their classroom the night before.”
Also, he said one of the disinfectants the teachers suggested was not on the EPA’s approved list would soon be added to it.
Pulver said staff has analyzed its HVAC systems and filters and said special filters mentioned may significantlly reduce air flow, but noted technicians are constantly re-evaluating the plan.
Pulver has consistently maintained that scientific data will govern the reopening plan.
The superintendent said the district’s site leadership is working with staff to better analyze and assess all aspects of the reopening plan.
“I’m confident that the plan that we’ve created will be a collaborative effort of all parts to ensure that we can have a safe reopening,” he said.
Pulver said the elementary reopening went very smoothly, heaping high praise on parents, saying most of the returning students were well trained on various safety protocols and wearing masks.