CUSD monitors a rapidly changing virus landscape

by Mick Rhodes |

With newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases mercifully in decline across Southern California, school districts are facing increased pressure to open classrooms, and Claremont is no exception.

“One of the things that’s interesting is how quickly that came about,” said Claremont Unified School District (CUSD) Interim Superintendent Julie Olesniewicz on Monday. “A month ago it was doom and gloom.”

Ms. Olesniewicz was referring to the welcome news that the adjusted case rate in Los Angeles County—the weekly average number of daily new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents—has for the past three weeks made a dramatic move in the right direction.

That number had been as high as 75 during the peak of the latest virus surge in January. It fell to 38.7 last week, and was 33.1 this week.

This downward trend has spurred CUSD into action, as L.A. County health department regulations state that primary schools may reopen to in-person instruction when that number hits 25 for five consecutive days.

The positive test numbers “just did a 180,” said Ms. Olesniewicz. “And not everyone can quite do a 180 that quickly. You’ve got to have some conversations and then get there.”

Claremont Unified School District staff and teachers are eager to return students to classrooms, but the reality of reopening those doors after nearly a year of remote learning is more complex than simply turning a key.

First, if L.A. County, and in turn CUSD, signal the all-clear, it would be for primary grades only. Reopening would also of course carry with it stringent COVID-19 protocols such as mandatory mask wearing for staff and students, physical distancing and frequent cleaning at school sites. All of this takes time, as does negotiating new memorandum of understanding (MOU) agreements with the district’s two unions to reflect the change in working conditions. All parties are working on this now in order to have the MOUs in place prior to the resumption of in-person learning.

Questions about vaccinations for teachers also loom large over the negotiations.

“We just want to go slow, and we want to make sure that we’re making the absolutely best decision for our students, our families and our staff,” Ms. Olesniewicz said. “It’s not day one and then you can come back.”

L.A. County Department of Public Health says middle and high schools may return to in-person learning only when new cases are at seven per 100,000. This higher threshold is due to the increased likelihood of virus transmission brought on by students moving between multiple classes, and classrooms, throughout the school day.

Primary grade students though, with their simpler, one-room instruction model, could very well be notified of a possible back-to-class date within two weeks.

Before that long-anticipated day though, the district must first accomplish a number of things. Firstly, it must arrive at MOU agreements with its employee unions regarding the requirements for employees to return to work during the ongoing pandemic.

“We surveyed members last week—and this is probably the third time we’ve surveyed them—just to get a sense of where members are, and the data is pretty inconclusive,” said Claremont Faculty Association (CFA) President Kara Evans. “Teachers in CUSD are kind of all over the map. They want to come back, they really do, but they want to come back when it’s safe. Just as there is in the world, the definition of what is safe varies for our teachers, teacher to teacher.”

Along with classroom teachers, the CFA’s 345-strong union also includes psychologists, speech pathologists, child development professionals and nurses.

The results of the recent CFA union survey are due back by the end of this week, and will provide a snapshot of the membership’s current state of mind. The union, led by Ms. Evans, and CUSD are currently hashing out the details of the MOU. The board isn’t required to vote to accept the agreement.

Once both parties have negotiated the terms of the MOU, the draft will likely need to be agreed upon by the whole of the CFA’s membership.

The negotiation process is happening simultaneously with CUSD’s other bargaining group, Claremont Chapter 200 of the California School Employees Association.

One of CFA’s most contentious issues has to do with vaccinations. Some teachers, Ms. Evans said, are comfortable coming back as soon as the county says it’s safe to open, with or without a vaccine. Others are ready to return as soon as they have been vaccinated and the county says it’s safe to open. Still others are even more cautious.

“Ultimately, I feel like the direction that we’re going to go is that we feel like it’s important to have members have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated before we come back to the classroom, and obviously when the numbers indicate that it’s safe to come back,” Ms. Evans said.

To those wondering, neither union nor CUSD will compel anyone to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. Any edict requiring vaccinations, all parties agreed, would have to come in the form of a legislative government mandate.

Another concern is how quickly everyone involved—students, families, caregivers, teachers, administrators, and other school employees—will be able to pivot from a year of distance learning to a return to normality.

The stress of getting kids or themselves actually dressed in real clothes (not just sweatpants or pajamas!), making lunches, and getting out the door on time to make it to school have not been part of anyone’s morning routine for some time. Not to mention picking up kids, afternoon day care, and the many other afterschool considerations. 

“We are diligently working daily right now to make sure that we’re ready to go as soon as we get the green light,” Ms. Olesniewicz said. “But it’s only fair to say that we need to give our families and our staff ample prep time, but we want to be ready to go.”

Ms. Olesniewicz said she anticipated “at least 14 days” of lead time for Claremont students, families, staff and teachers following an announcement of a “possible opening date.” That “possible” bit is important, because as we have all seen over the past year, COVID-19 numbers can fall and then spike back upward seemingly overnight.

The window of time between schools being allowed to open and actually welcoming students back will also be a component of CFA’s MOU negotiation.

“Right now I think our MOU says something like 72 hours, and that’s not enough time,” Ms. Evans said. “Not just for teachers but for the community. Everybody’s got to adjust what they’re doing; parents need to adjust how their schedules work.

“Everyone in the community has worked out details about where their kids are going to be, and who’s taking care of them, and who’s handing this thing or that thing. That’s absolutely the case for teachers as well.”


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