LA Unified, teachers’ union reach agreement over distance learning guidelines

April 9, 2020

The Los Angeles Unified school board room in the district's downtown headquarters.

Los Angeles teachers will be able to create their own work schedules and won’t be required to teach classes using live video platforms as part of an agreement reached late Wednesday with the Los Angeles Unified School District on guidelines for delivering distance learning for the rest of the school year in California’s largest school district.

The district and the United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing tens of thousands of district teachers, reached the agreement after days of marathon bargaining sessions, the union said Wednesday night. Superintendent Austin Beutner confirmed the agreement Thursday in a joint statement with Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of the union. 

Beutner has not yet said schools will be closed for the remainder of the academic year, having only said they will be closed through at least May 1. However, Caputo-Pearl said Thursday morning in a Facebook Live address that he expects schools will remain shut down the rest of the school year.

We are pleased to announce that Los Angeles Unified and United Teachers Los Angeles have reached an agreement to provide the flexibility and support educators need to do their best work in these extraordinary circumstances. Our shared goal is to help students continue to learn and support students and families most in need,” Beutner and Caputo-Pearl said in their statement. 

Under the agreement, which expires June 30, teachers will have the flexibility to create their own work schedules while schools are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The agreement states that teachers “shall create, share and follow” a regular weekly schedule that includes teaching and student support. Teachers will be required to work for at least four hours daily under the agreement. Those work requirements will include holding at least three office hours each week.

Meanwhile, teachers will be encouraged, but not required, to use live video platforms such as Zoom as part of their teaching.

Teachers will also not lose any of their pay or benefits while schools are closed.

The agreement comes against the backdrop of harsh criticism from union leaders that teachers were being “micromanaged” by the district and being subjected to “unfounded directives and time-wasting processes.” The two sides arrived at the agreement after weeks of bargaining that featured 30 hours of negotiations this week, including 15 hours on Tuesday.

An agreement in the state’s largest district serving 600,000 students will surely act as a guide to districts across California where bargaining is underway with teachers unions on how to carry out distance learning. When state leaders urged districts to end in-person instruction for the rest of the school year as a way to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, they also urged that districts provide quality distance learning programs for the state’s six million students. While the state has pledged support, it has not dictated specifically how those programs will be carried out.

LA Unified has made progress in preparing students in the massive district for distance learning but significant challenges remain to reach all students. In an address Monday, Beutner outlined that despite spending $100 million on tools and technology, many students, especially those in the elementary grades, won’t have what they need to engage in online learning until May.

There are also benefits for students in the agreement, which states that students will not receive a grade that is worse than their grade as of March 13. Their grades can only improve the rest of the school year. That policy is in line with state guidance

Additionally, students will have access to counselors for academic, career and social and emotional needs, according to the agreement. Students will be able to schedule virtual or phone appointments “upon issuance of formal guidelines for one-on-one unit member-student engagement by the district,” the agreement states.

In his Facebook Live address Thursday morning, Caputo-Pearl emphasized that the agreement “is not trying to replace brick-and-mortar schools.” 

“You can’t replace brick-and-mortar schools and all the interaction that happens there and the crucial things that happen for equity to make sure that all students, regardless of race, income or gender, have equitable opportunities,” he said. “You need physical schools to do that. This is not trying to change that. This is just trying to manage a pandemic.”

Disagreements over whether to give teachers the flexibility to set their own schedules and whether to require them to teach via live video were major sticking points that prevented the two sides from reaching a deal before Wednesday, UTLA President-Elect Cecily Myart-Cruz told EdSource.

The district’s initial proposal in March stated that teachers “shall use live video engagement with students whenever possible.” It also stated that administrators “shall be given access to such live video engagement,” a nonstarter for the union. The agreement reached Wednesday does not include that language.

The union has argued that teachers should have flexibility to set their own schedules, rather than being mandated to teach on schedules set by schools.

“There are administrators who are hell-bent on micromanaging folks. And it’s ridiculous,” Myart-Cruz said in an interview Monday.

As part of the agreement, teachers are required to work 240 minutes or four hours each day, but it’s up to them to determine what that work will include. Caputo-Pearl said Thursday that those hours can include live teaching but also planning, grading, office hours and faculty meetings. 

“The vast majority of teachers” in the district will likely choose to work more than four hours a day, Caputo-Pearl said. However, he added that the union wanted to make sure that “in a crisis situation,” teachers can complete their work “in a flexible way.”

Many teachers will likely use live video to teach their classes, Caputo-Pearl said. But he added that the union rejected a “one-size-fits-all approach.” Instead of using video conferencing, some teachers may prefer using email, phone calls, recorded videos or other methods of communicating with students, he said.

“We wanted to leave the pedagogical discretion to the professionals, to educators,” he said. “You know what you’re doing with your students.”

The two sides also agreed that teachers will be required to receive professional development on “distance learning strategies and use of technology.” Those trainings will be “no longer than one hour” and teachers are expected to complete them by April 17.

However, the union will ask for an extension to that deadline if the district is unable to fix technical problems with Schoology, an online platform where teachers can share lesson plans and assignments with students. Teachers have reported the platform is often crashing, and the district acknowledged that technical issues existed. Beutner said Monday that the platform wasn’t built to support 500,000 users at the same time and that the district was enlisting a “major tech company” to fix the system.

The deal also states that special education teachers will provide distance learning “as appropriate” and “to the extent practical.” The union and the district plan to “continue to discuss how to provide equitable and appropriate education for students with disabilities,” the union said.

The union was also able to secure what Caputo-Pearl described as “the best agreement in the United States” for substitute teachers.

Substitutes who are currently on long-term assignments with the district will continue to receive the same pay rate. 

Day-to-day substitutes will be paid at least as much as they were already being paid “based on their current work year pattern,” the agreement states. They will be paid for three to six hours a day. 

“So nobody will be paid less than three hours a day, which is an amazing floor,” Caputo-Pearl said.

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