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The return to California classrooms after the winter holiday break has been rocky, as Covid infection rates continue to climb, schools run out of substitutes to take over classrooms for ill and quarantined teachers, and district officials and staff wrangle over safety protocols.
But lessons continue — although some are happening in merged classes held in auditoriums or gymnasiums — and teachers have adapted them with safety in mind.
Hundreds of teachers have participated in sickouts to protest what they see as a lack of Covid protections in their schools. Thursday, San Francisco Unified schools were missing 900 teachers and aides, and last Friday the absence of 503 teachers ceased instruction at 12 Oakland Unified schools as teachers protested, seeking more stringent safety protocols on campuses.
Sixteen West Contra Costa Unified teachers from two different schools also walked off campuses on various days this week after teachers asked for increased testing, the hiring of more substitutes and KN95 masks, which filter out more particles in the air than cloth masks.
“Teachers just want safety measures for the students and the staff,” said Victoria Canote, a third-grade teacher at Merritt Trace Elementary in San Jose Unified. “We are risking our health. The kids are risking their health.”
She would also like to see San Jose Unified increase safety protocols at schools, including purchasing KN95 or N95 masks and take-home Covid tests for both teachers and students. Although the district is offering testing, lines are long, she said.
The state requires schools to provide a face covering to students who inadvertently fail to bring one to school, but it doesn’t require they provide specific types of masks.
This week San Francisco Unified began distributing KN95 and surgical masks to students and staff. Oakland Unified has distributed KN95 and N95 masks to staff, and began distributing KN95 masks to students Thursday. West Contra Costa Unified is distributing KN95 masks to staff and surgical masks to students.
Canote, a self-proclaimed stickler for Covid protocols, teaches her class outside whenever she can and wears an N95 mask, which she pays for herself. She is constantly washing her hands or using hand sanitizer.
“There is no social distancing (in the classroom),” she said. “It’s a mess. I have 27 kids and they are side by side. I’ve tried to space them out as much as I can. … That is why I go outside a lot.”
Currently, Canote says, at least two of her students are out sick with Covid.
District officials are having an even more difficult time than usual finding enough substitutes for teachers and other staff positions. The situation is so bad that Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin has asked parents to help.
“We need your help to volunteer as never before,” he said in a video that was emailed to parents last weekend. “If you are able, please answer.”
By Monday morning, 360 parents had responded, volunteering to do jobs that include signing in students at lunch, recess duty, light custodial duties, work in the office preparing materials and helping teachers.
Chris Evans, superintendent at Natomas Unified School District in Sacramento, is hoping Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision Tuesday to temporarily loosen substitute teacher requirements will help ease staffing shortages at schools. The executive order will let substitutes serve with only a temporary certificate instead of a substitute credential, will permit substitutes to be assigned to a class for up to 120 days and allows more flexibility for retired teachers to work as substitutes.
A shortage of substitutes in Natomas Unified last Thursday resulted in two classes being ushered into the Inderkum High School theater during third period and three classes during fourth period, so that they could share a teacher.
“It was safe to have kids in the theater, to keep kids spread out,” Evans said.
Last Thursday was the only day this happened at Inderkum, although some elementary school classes have had to be combined this week because of teacher shortages, he said.
The district, which serves 15,700 students, has cushioned itself against the substitute shortage by hiring 53 long-term substitutes and hiking substitute pay to $265 a day temporarily.
“We are in tremendously good shape,” Evans said, adding that he hasn’t had to close a class or school yet.
So far only a few school districts have closed their doors for more than a few days or pushed back their return to school.
Milpitas Unified had planned to return to online learning Monday but changed course over the weekend after officials there learned they did not have the power to issue a districtwide quarantine.
Hayward Unified, which enrolls about 22,000 students, announced last Friday it would hold classes online Tuesday through Friday of this week due to the surging omicron variant. The district, in Alameda County, is hosting “learning hubs” at schools where limited numbers of students can access the internet. The district also is providing “grab-and-go” meals each day to help with social distancing.
Concerns about the contagious omicron variant have meant rule changes at some districts, like requiring students to wear a KN95 mask or a paper surgical mask, instead of less effective cloth masks. Some districts are now requiring masks be worn outside as well as inside.
A group of more than 1,200 Oakland Unified high school students have told district officials that they have until Monday to provide KN95 masks for every student, twice weekly Covid tests for everyone on campus and more covered outdoor spaces where students can have lunch, or they will walk off their campuses.
Los Angeles Unified, California’s largest district, was one of the last to return from the holiday on Tuesday. Long lines were reported at some schools as staff verified Covid tests, according to media reports. The district required students and staff to test negative for Covid before they returned to campus.
“We know there is apprehension, and we’ve added the extra layers of protection for the return to school,” the district’s interim superintendent, Megan K. Reilly, said in a video address to families and staff. “There may be a few lines at the start of the school day and longer wait times for buses.”
The district has assigned 4,000 administrative employees to schools to staff classrooms, cafeterias and other positions that may need to be filled because of illness or quarantine requirements.
Teachers are getting creative and adapting lessons to keep the students who come to school safe.
San Francisco drama teacher Keith Carames usually asks students at James Lick Middle School to act out a fairy-tale adaptation during the semester, but instead they will be performing shadow puppet theater. Instead of reading a play and acting out scenes from “The Crucible” they will analyze the play and learn scenic design.
Carames said it’s too difficult to teach students to act with masks on because you can’t see their facial expressions and because the material acts as a barrier between the voice and projection.
“Expectations have had to change,” he said. “I’ve had to adapt my entire curriculum, and what used to work before can no longer. We’ve had to go from long-term planning to immediate day-to-day planning.”
Carames, who teaches a semester-long class, said he has yet to meet about half of his students.
“It feels lonely,” Carames said. “Your classes are half full. I’m constantly worried about my students. Sometimes you call home and they don’t pick up the phone.”
Carames said San Francisco Unified should have required students and staff to be tested for Covid before returning from the holiday break. Instead, he said, lessons are interrupted two or more times each class period by calls from the school office asking for students to be sent there for contact tracing.
Erika Cedeño teaches Spanish at Santa Clarita Valley International School in Castaic, which focuses on project-based learning. It’s not easy for students to work safely in teams during a pandemic, so Cedeño has learned to improvise.
Instead of putting students in groups to discuss a poem by Antonio Machado, the students discuss the poem on the internet — each at their desk. Cedeño has adapted another lesson that calls for students to work together to produce a skit in Spanish to a lesson calling for students to individually perform and record a skit.
Next week the students will make a video while they talk about a recipe in Spanish while cooking it at home. They won’t be able to share the food.
“That is so sad,” Cedeño said. “But we must embrace the change.”
Cedeño and her fellow teachers at the charter school are offering students as much flexibility as possible, including letting them turn in assignments late.
“We need to have a lot of empathy and compassion, seriously,” she said. “All my colleagues are in the same boat. The kids say they appreciate that. They don’t take advantage. We need to have compassion for each other.”
Cedeño said about 10 of her students were missing from class Tuesday. She doesn’t know if they have Covid. She said a lot of students are out because they fear contracting the virus.
Students who did return to school are wearing their masks and social distancing instead of sitting together and sharing snacks as they did before the holiday.
“They are afraid to go online again,” she said. “That’s why.”
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