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In the midst of the most widespread pandemic in over a century and an unprecedented economic crisis, the Huntington Beach Union High School School District Board of Trustees (HBUHSD) has decided to issue teachers a cruel ultimatum: return to in-person instruction or forgo a significant portion of your pay once your sick days are exhausted.
The decision has sent shockwaves throughout the community, but this is not the first time the board threatened to force teachers back to in-person instruction. Back in December, the school threatened to send teachers back to school just as Covid-19 cases were beginning to ramp up during the holiday season. Parents, teachers, and students united together to express their concerns and grievances at a school board meeting, many on the verge of tears.
But not everyone came out in support of teachers.
One frustrated parent suggested placing “trackers” on teachers to detect whether they perform essential duties such as going to the grocery store. Another parent falsely accused teachers of partying and traveling during virtual classroom sessions.
As a student myself, I can admit that online learning can not only be extraordinarily challenging, but it places severe restrictions on lower-income students who have limited access to the internet and will likely have a negative impact on our educational institutions that will be felt for years to come. However, virtual instruction is necessary in order to guarantee the safety of our educational community and should be built upon rather than abolished for an alternative that makes it look perfect in comparison.
Recent CDC studies show conflicting data on whether school reopenings significantly contribute to higher community Covid-19 cases. Those who argue in favor of reopening schools acknowledge that the risk of higher community spread exists, but that it is a risk worth taking for the sake of providing children with a quality education. However, given the stressful pandemic environment and the fact that many experienced teachers have already decided to take personal leaves, the quality of in-person instruction will likely remain much lower than what it was before the pandemic.
That is before we even take California’s Covid-19 situation into account, which has recently become the new epicenter of the virus. Intensive care unit (ICU) capacity still remains at critically low levels in Southern California, dramatically increasing the risk of death for many of those who are vulnerable to Covid-19. Despite a recent decrease in the number of new cases, new, more contagious strains of coronavirus are beginning to spread, Orange County still remains in the state’s highest risk category, and easened state restrictions can easily give rise to a new wave of Covid-19 cases that will quickly overwhelm hospitals.
To make matters worse, in-person instruction is not the only policy placing faculty and students at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19. The school district also plans to resume some athletics and co-curricular activities where even the most elementary guidelines such as wearing a mask are rarely followed.
But the in-person model has been met with resistance. Hundreds of students have already pledged to go on strike by refusing to attend class, which could end up hurting the district.
One of the leaders of the student strike effort, Drew Dela Llana, claims that the strike went “quite well” and that students were “organizing a masked and socially distanced picket” at a HBUHSD Board meeting next week. Llana hopes “to account for students unable to strike and to keep [their] grades and attendance up to par”. She also plans “to promote switching to online learning for those who have the luxury of doing so.”
The choice to force teachers and students back to school is not just a local failure. The decision was made possible partly as a result of governor Newsom’s decision to lift the state’s stay-at-home order, despite incredibly high case numbers and a lack of an ambitious vaccination plan.
According to current vaccination and Covid-19 case numbers, public health officials believe we are on track to return to a degree of normality by the end of the summer. Instead of just maintaining virtual learning for a few more months until vaccines become widely available, the HBUHSD Board of Trustees has decided to force teachers to choose between their income or safety. The policy is not only cruel but expensive, counter-productive, and highly discriminatory against those who are vulnerable to Covid-19.
The most frustrating part about all of this is the complete lack of influence teachers have over the board’s decisions. When we think of our schools, we think of the teachers, staff, and students, not a handful of board members who treat their employees as pawns to sacrifice rather than the backbone of their community. It’s time to utilize the tools of democracy to hold our elected officials accountable and protect our educational community.
Damian Nastic lives in Huntington Beach, California, and graduated from Huntington Beach High School in 2020. He is a freshman at Golden West College. He writes for his own blog at illusionofdemocracy.com, participates in student government, and is a member of the AGS Honors Society.
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