LASD resumes in-person classes, union objects

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Zoe Morgan/Town Crier File Photo
A teacher talks with a student at Covington School last fall.

The Los Altos School District reopened campuses and resumed in-person classes today (Jan. 11), despite the teachers’ union asking the district to stay remote.

In the fall, LASD had resumed part-time, in-person classes for students in fifth grade and below. That reopening was paused in December, when the district reverted to being fully remote, due to a high number of staff absences. Students and staff complete a COVID-19 symptom tracker every day, and are required to stay home if they report any possible symptoms.

The district reopened campuses Monday for students in fifth grade and below, as scheduled. Sixth- through eighth-graders are slated to return Jan. 20.

The teachers’ union, formally called the Los Altos Teachers Association, opposed that move, sending a letter last week to the district’s board of trustees and Superintendent Jeff Baier, urging the district to hold off on reopening. This is the first time the teachers’ union has publicly advocated against reopening.

The union wants learning to be remote until one of two criteria is met: either Santa Clara County returns to the “red” tier in the state’s COVID-19 framework for two weeks (currently the county is in the highest-risk “purple” tier) or all staff are able to be fully vaccinated.

“We recognize that this is a difficult decision, and that there is no perfect solution during this unprecedented year,” the letter reads. “Educators in LASD remain committed to providing the best learning experience possible for all our students. However, we cannot put our students, families, and school staff at risk by returning in person before these conditions are met.”

Baier said in an interview that the district puts tremendous value on its staff and students, and will do everything necessary to keep people safe.

“As a school district, we would not place our staff or our students in a situation that we didn’t think was safe. That’s not in anybody’s interest,” he said. “That being said, I do understand the worry, but ... it’s why we’re working so hard to ensure that everyone can operate safely – because we know having kids in school is critical.”

The district has thus far reported that nine students and 10 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

The district’s board of trustees has a regularly scheduled meeting at 7 p.m. tonight and Baier said he expects that the board will discuss the union’s letter.

Although the letter asked the district to stick with remote learning, in-person classes resumed Monday. Union president Ricky Hu said in an interview that many teachers have safety concerns about returning to the classroom as COVID-19 cases spike, but that the union has not recommended its members take actions like not showing up for work.

“What I can say is that there are certainly a lot of teachers that are going back to work, but are feeling (it’s) unsafe to do so,” Hu said.

Many other school districts in the county never reopened for in-person learning in any capacity last fall. The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District has stuck with online learning, and its teachers’ union has publicly opposed resuming any in-person classes. LASD went with a phased in-person return, bringing back its youngest students in mid-October, and phasing in additional grade levels over time.

The union’s decision to advocate for staying remote was prompted by concerns from teachers, as a result of sharply rising COVID-19 cases, Hu said. The county was moved into the most restrictive tier in the state’s COVID-19 framework back in November, and is now averaging more than 1,200 new cases per day, compared with roughly 100 in early October.

“There are no really perfect solutions in this time, whether it’s hybrid or whether it’s remote learning,” Hu said. “But in light of safety concerns, that should take priority, and that’s what we’ve heard loud and clear from our membership.”

District reopens

The district moved forward with reopening today. After pausing in-person classes last month, Baier said he believes the district is no longer at risk of a districtwide closure due to a personnel shortage.

Staying remote for a week after winter break gave some time for any staff who traveled over the holidays to complete the mandatory 10-day quarantine. The district also has an internal list of substitute teachers and uses an outside company that provides ad-hoc substitutes.

If staffing becomes an issue, Baier said the district is now prepared to switch individual classrooms temporarily to remote, rather than closing districtwide.

Vaccines may start to be available for teachers in the coming weeks. County health officials have said they could move into Phase 1B of the vaccine rollout – which includes educators – as soon as the end of the month. Baier said he has been pushing officials to prioritize vaccinating staff at schools that have already returned in-person.

“We’re not just planning for a return, we have returned,” he said. “I’d like to see districts like Los Altos and Palo Alto Unified moved to the front of the pack.”

Hu said that having vaccines available to teachers would “work wonders” for increasing confidence about in-person learning.

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