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Natomas teachers union files unfair labor charge after district announces 5-day schedule

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 4/7/2021 Sawsan Morrar, The Sacramento Bee

Apr. 6—Teachers in the Natomas Unified School District are pushing back on the district's plan to bring elementary school students back to campus five days a week, saying the plan doesn't give teachers much time to prepare their lessons.

Natomas Unified plans to bring students back on campus five days a week beginning Monday as coronavirus infection rates continue to drop in Sacramento County.

The decision prompted the Natomas Teachers Association to file an unfair labor practice charge with the Public Employment Relations Board, stating that the district should have consulted with the union before making the switch. The district says the memorandum of understanding it has with the union to reopen campuses doesn't require them to negotiate such changes.

Students have been on campus in Natomas since the beginning of March, attending classes two to three days a week in smaller cohorts. About 40% of students are in-person, and 60% of students are still in distance learning. The district runs a concurrent model where teachers instruct students in-person and online at the same time.

But teachers union president Brenda Borge said that if their labor group knew the district would make the switch to a five-day model, they would have agreed to a different model — where teachers can instruct students in-person and online at separate times. Teachers instruct students in such models in other school districts, including Twin Rivers Unified.

Borge said the new schedule will make teachers' jobs incredibly challenging and would compromise how they instruct students.

"We chose the concurrent model because it's manageable," Borge said. "But with the new schedule, the concurrent model is very labor intensive. It requires that your technology is working, that you have enough chargers for the kids, some of them have instructional aides, and a lot of that is compromised. If a lesson is very prep heavy, and your prep time is reduced, that alarms us. It's not sustainable"

In a letter to teachers, Superintendent Chris Evans stated the district is "absolutely following the signed Oct. 31, 2020 MOU."

The MOU states the district board of trustees "will make the determination at any point of which model it chooses to adopt based on state and local health officials' guidance and applicable public health orders," and that once Sacramento County enters the yellow tier for coronavirus risk, "both sides will meet and confer about the possibility of reopening fully."

The district reopened campuses after COVID-19 cases hit the lowest the county has seen since October, and the COVID-19 vaccine was offered to all district staff. In a letter to parents, the district stated it has seen an immense increase in students needing mental and social-emotional support since the start of the pandemic. The district had an average to 1,200 referrals per year prior to school closures. That number has increased to 3,900 referrals.

Borge acknowledges the rapid changes in safety measures happening locally and across the nation, but said the district should have consulted with the teachers union before making the decision.

The district and the teachers union have met regarding the schedule, and plan to meet on Tuesday.

"I think NTA leadership's argument is depriving students of the same education other districts in surrounding counties have," Evans told The Sacramento Bee. "The integrity of their argument really goes to question. We have been named the second most diverse in the nation twice, why do our kids need any less quality education than in surrounding counties?"

Borge said it's too early to talk about a possible strike, but stated that the district's decisions are what brought the union to file an unfair practice charge.

"We worked hard to negotiate safe and clear conditions for a return to in-person instruction and the district has broken those agreements and upended those routines," she said.

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