As calls to get back to the classroom become more urgent, Cabrillo Unified School District teachers’ union leaders say they will return to in-person classrooms even without vaccines for returning staff.

In late January, the California Teachers Association sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom that said vaccines are a key element to reopening. The union requested that school districts located in counties still in the “purple tier,” where COVID-19 transmission is widespread, remain closed for the next 100 days as the state improves testing, vaccine distribution and workplace safety.

Cabrillo Unified Teachers Association Co-President Sean Riordan said his union is taking a different approach.

“We’re not insisting on vaccines,” Riordan said. “We’re insisting on safe spaces, implementation of the four pillars, masks. But vaccines? No.”

CUTA Co-President Kathleen Wall said the union is focusing on each of the four safety pillars — health and hygiene, face coverings, physical distancing and limiting gatherings as well as analyzing the district’s safety measures, making sure classroom arrangements, ventilation, air scrubbers and personal protective equipment are all up to par. Wall and Riordan said the district has been responsive to their concerns and feedback.

“We're united in wanting to come back as soon and as safely as possible,” Riordan said.

CUTA and the district are currently in negotiations on a memorandum of understanding for reopening, and will meet again on Friday to finalize the document. Riordan and Wall said they are optimistic that the MOU will be resolved this week and approved by their members shortly after.

Wall, Riordan and CUSD Superintendent Sean McPhetridge said the district is in the process of surveying teachers to find out how many would return once the district is able to reopen. While there is no set date for reopening, the Opening of Schools Steering Committee and school board have said Cabrillo schools can begin a gradual reopening once the county has been in the “orange tier” for two consecutive weeks. McPhetridge and union leaders say they will follow the committee’s recommendations, which were created based with input from families, employees and others in the community.

Meanwhile, district leaders, principals, custodial staff and teachers are working to make sure that each classroom is ready at least two weeks before students are set to come back, so any discrepancies can be handled well in advance. Wall and Riordan are also working to make sure teachers have the opportunity to personalize their rooms and doublecheck for safety compliance.

“We need to know that when we say we’re opening, the rooms are already ready,” Wall said.

The negotiations come as teachers, families and school leaders across the state and nation are grappling with the pros and cons of getting back into the classroom. More people are calling for widespread reopenings.

Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Rochelle Walensky said last week that teachers do not need to get vaccinated to return to classrooms safely. Also on Feb. 3, a Southern California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said campuses should reopen immediately. Then, Gov. Gavin Newsom chimed in too, saying schools can reopen before teachers are fully vaccinated.

McPhetridge said he, too, would like to see school back in session as soon as is safely possible.

“This can be done,” McPhetrdige said. “People will be anxious. But I think the stakes are high for our kids, families and employees. As much as we can, I think we should make efforts to get kids on campus any way we can.”

The tide is turning because so few cases have been linked to transmission in schools. Meanwhile there is more research being done on the learning and mental health detriments of online school.

While many teachers have been prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines, most Bay Area counties don’t have enough supply to begin scheduling shots for educators. Seven Bay Area counties, including San Mateo County, released a statement last week reaffirming their decision to continue to prioritize those 65 and older. In doing so, they are relying on data of COVID-19 deaths among seniors.

“Across the region, most COVID-19 deaths have been in the 65-and-up age group,” the statement said. “Thus, focusing vaccination efforts on those at greatest risk of death will have the biggest immediate impact on saving lives.”

McPhetridge said he is working to submit a list of staff to the county’s Office of Education. At the top are employees who currently work face-to-face with students in learning pods, followed by those who would have the greatest contact with students when school reopens. He said district administrators, whose jobs require the least exposure, will fall at the bottom of the vaccine priority list.

“Jesus (Contreras), Leticia (Bhatia) and I will be the last to get the vaccine,” McPhetridge said. 

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