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San Jose Unified finds itself in quandary with school just a month away

Mercury News logo Mercury News 7/14/2020 Aldo Toledo
a close up of a school bus: SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 18: School buses idled by the coronavirus pandemic are stored at the San Jose Unified School District yard, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group) © Provided by Mercury News SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 18: School buses idled by the coronavirus pandemic are stored at the San Jose Unified School District yard, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in San Jose, Calif. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

SAN JOSE — Although the San Jose Unified School District was preparing to start the new academic year with a mix of classroom instruction and distance learning, recent events have forced it to hit the pause button.

First, the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates across Santa Clara County and much of the state began rising again a couple of weeks ago. And then, on Friday night, the local teachers union announced that many of its teachers were adamant against returning to the classroom.

So the district decided to survey parents about what they’d like to see happen before it makes a final decision.

In an interview Tuesday, Deputy Superintendent Stephen McMahon declined to say whether the school district would scrap the hybrid teaching model it announced a few weeks ago.

“I can’t answer definitively what school will look like August 12,” McMahon said, acknowledging that “right now health conditions are not favorable” for the plan.

Statewide, more and more school districts have been choosing to start the year with distance learning and, depending on when the pandemic wanes, to phase in some classroom instruction. Two of the biggest districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — announced Monday they committed to distance learning throughout the entire fall.

In addition to considering results from the survey it sent out Friday, McMahon said the district will be making assessments “day by day” based on county health orders.

“We don’t want to make any promises in July we can’t keep in August,” McMahon said, adding that the district anticipated a coronavirus surge and built a model that “would allow us to pivot from in-classroom to at-home learning.”

He said the district intends to release the results of the survey on Friday.

Even if the district chooses to open some classrooms next month, many teachers aren’t planning to return, San Jose Teachers Association President Patrick Bernhardt said Monday.

Bernhardt said about 600 of the union’s 1,500 members have made it “abundantly clear they were preparing to make individual decisions to not come back to work.”

Those are individual decisions, he said, adding that the union itself isn’t organizing teachers to stay away from classrooms.

“This really isn’t a situation where we anticipate asking members to take actions, it has really been a lot of grassroots conversations,” Bernhardt said.

“This is really a situation where members are telling me things that they’re going to do to protect their own health and the health of their family,” he said. “The district is really at risk of having a lot of people taking individual decisions.”

Teachers who don’t want to leave the district but fear contracting the virus if they return to classrooms could seek guidance from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, though it’s unclear what kind of protections the state agency could provide.

McMahon said teachers can also talk to the district’s human relations department about their concerns, but he wouldn’t say whether a teachers’ position or pay would be affected by not returning to work.

Union representative Bernhardt said he hasn’t talked to district administrators since sending the letter.

“From what I’ve seen from my members, I don’t see another path forward other than full distance learning,” Bernhardt said. “The earlier we know what we’re doing the better. We need to put our limited time and resources into doing distance learning the absolute best we can on the first day of school.”

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Jennifer Maddox, whose two children go to San Jose Unified schools, said she prefers a hybrid approach because any level of in-person instruction “would be beneficial, even if it can’t be for all students.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close in March, Maddox said parents of San Jose Unified students have wanted more access to teachers and less distance learning, while teachers concerned about their safety have been advocating for distance learning.

The debate is “not helping people feel more comfortable with the situation,” Maddox said, noting that school is just a month away. “There are no easy answers. If the decision is made because they feel that (distance learning) is the best environment they can offer while keeping students and staff safe, then I don’t know we have much choice but to accept.”


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