No return date: Superintendent plans on meeting with teachers, says all want what’s best for kids
Administrators with the Nevada Joint Union High School District say they will talk with teachers who opted to forego work after the school board chose against mandating masks, contrary to existing state rules.
Superintendent Brett McFadden said he didn’t know when discussions would start, though he worked throughout Thursday on scheduling meetings.
Please know that it is incredibly difficult for us to be away from our students right now. They are the reason we entered this profession. Teachers are, by nature, rule followers; our community entrusts us with the education of our young people and with their safety. The state clearly recognizes this by placing the mantle of responsibility on us as Mandated Reporters, legally requiring us to report any environment or action we have knowledge of that could cause physical or emotional harm to a student. So we’re used to being held to a high standard and finding ourselves in uncomfortable spaces to protect students in our care. It’s just part of our job.
Late Monday afternoon, those school employees who checked their work email over a holiday weekend discovered a letter from our district superintendent, directing us to cease strict enforcement of the NJUHSD mask guidelines effective the next morning, to instead “educate” any students who decline a mask since “enforcement is unsustainable.” The letter explained that a resolution supporting this change would be presented for approval at a special NJUHSD Board meeting Tuesday evening, February 22, 2022.
The resolution to change mask enforcement was passed. Teachers present in the room and on Zoom were shocked because this directly violated the agreements the board approved with both the teachers’ union and the classified employees’ union. Those agreements–with language directly based on guidance from the CDPH, Cal OSHA, and our own county–were crystal clear: masks are required indoors at schools and medical settings. And if any changes in masking requirements were handed down by state officials, we would renegotiate the agreement at that time.
So we ask: Why now? On 2/16/22, when the state lifted masking requirements for most indoor facilities, the governor’s office delayed changes in K-12 masking requirements, announcing updates are expected on Monday, 2/28/22. Why did our district “jump the gun”? Why was there no discussion with us prior to the creation of this resolution and the scheduling of a special board meeting? Why was our district medical professional not even consulted?
As a result, teachers and staff have been put in an untenable legal position. Teachers could lose their professional credentials for not following a state mandate (Ed Code 44421). Our district could lose its liability insurance or incur fines for violating the law. We could lose our special COVID-19 disaster relief funding. Board members and other individuals in authority could also open themselves to litigation. This is playing out right now in other districts in nearby communities.
We are all ready for this pandemic to be over, and coupled with cases dropping quickly in our community, a state mandate may seem less pressing. While the board may not consider mandates to carry legal weight, the state of California does, and anything otherwise is magical thinking. Although feelings surrounding masking are divided among our members, we stand united in support of the contract language that was approved by both our membership and by the Board of Trustees.
We bargain in good faith. When either side can simply choose to act against what was mutually agreed upon, the trust between teachers and the district is damaged and eroded.
We call on all parties to return to the table for discussion, clarification, and to define a way to move forward without breaking the law. It’s critical that we take action to begin to restore the trust and partnership we have long shared in the best interest of our students.
School was closed Thursday, as many teachers opted to stay home.
“We’re trying to (meet) at the earliest possible convenience for all parties,” said McFadden. “It’s a dynamic situation, some are very angry and we’re on uncharted ground. All stakeholders are upset and very tired of COVID. But we are doing our best to facilitate an outcome that’s in the best interests of the kids.”
McFadden said the rancor is similar to the partisan political divide that currently exists across the country.
“Everybody is in their own camp, and it’s difficult to negotiate in a pandemic when there’s so much division.” he said, adding, “But we’re firmly committed to help facilitate the discussion and get all parties on a common page.”
McFadden said he couldn’t predict when teachers would return to the classroom in sufficient numbers that would not impact class schedules.
“At the end of the day, there’s good people in the district,” he said. “I’m confident we can put all parties together and do what’s right for the students in this district.”
The district’s administration had on Monday announced in a letter to staff, students, and families that the enforcement of student mask usage would consist of “educating students and asking them to mask,” but would no longer include exclusion from class or school-related activities if they do not do so, effective Tuesday. On Wednesday, some 20 to 40 teachers didn’t come to work. The school closed Thursday.
Courtney Wadman, who’s taught dance at Nevada Union for 12 years, said she knows there are several students and parents strongly opposed to masking. Many others believe it is important to follow the state mandate and the county health guidelines. However, she said if she were to allow students to go without masks in her classroom, she could face civil lawsuits, and be subject to disciplinary action by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. That could include the loss of her credentials.
“The fact remains that the mandate is still in effect, and I am still legally and contractually bound to enforce it,” said Wadman. “I have felt supported in doing this difficult task, until (Wednesday). For that reason, I was afraid to go to work. But I showed up anyway, for the sake of my students and their education. I followed my contract, and as I have done for the past several months, I explained to my students that they were required to wear masks while inside my classroom.”
Peter Totoonchie, a leadership class teacher and activities director at Nevada Union, said there’s no coordinated effort of teachers to stay out.
“The school board says masks are optional, but the state and county health departments say masks are required,” he added.
Olivia Pritchett is a parent of two Nevada Union students, a son who is a senior and the student trustee, and a daughter who dances in Wadman’s class. Pritchett said she thinks teachers should be included in the process.
“The school board is not saying masks are optional,” said Pritchett. “They’re still saying the mask mandate is in place. But they’re putting the burden on teachers to educate students about mask benefits and persuade students to use masks.”
Eric Mayer, the teachers union president, said that a letter sent from McFadden last weekend instructed teachers “to cease strict enforcement of the NJUHSD mask guidelines effective the next morning.”
“We are all ready for this pandemic to be over, and coupled with cases dropping quickly in our community, a state mandate may seem less pressing,” said Mayer. “While the board may not consider mandates to carry legal weight, the state of California does, and anything otherwise is magical thinking. Although feelings surrounding masking are divided among our members, we stand united in support of the contract language that was approved by both our membership and by the Board of Trustees.”
William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Students of the Nevada Joint Union High School District now have a new opportunity to learn and a dedicated space in which to be educated.
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