Classroom impact: Teachers absent at Nevada Union after changes in district policy
Teacher Meegan Toro says her choice to stay home Wednesday wasn’t due to the decision the school district had reached about enforcement of the statewide school mask mandate.
It was because of how it came to that decision.
Toro was among a number of Nevada Union High School teachers who were absent from the school Wednesday following recent mask mandate protocol changes.
Nevada Union Principal Kelly Rhoden said in an email to families Wednesday morning that, due to “a number of unforeseen circumstances this morning,” the school was experiencing a significant staff and substitute shortage.
While the school would remain open, she said, a number of classes would be impacted by the lack of staff and some students would be meeting in the school’s theater during affected class periods.
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.
The district Board of Trustees voted during a special meeting Tuesday evening to approve a resolution supporting that administrative action, although some trustees as well as teachers raised concerns at the meeting, stating that the resolution’s passage would be in conflict with a memorandum of understanding the board had made with district staff in September.
State Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said in an announcement Feb. 14 that a change would not be made to the state’s school mask mandate at that time, and that his department will reassess Monday whether there should be a change to the rule, the Associated Press reported.
Between 30 and 40 Nevada Union teachers were out Wednesday, according to multiple teachers’ estimates.
Toro said she stayed home because the district’s administration and board had “made a decision that goes directly against a part of our contract.” She said that she is in favor of seeing that part of the contract changed, but that the district had acted without first discussing the matter with teachers.
“And when the announcement came out from the superintendent on Monday evening that they were sending out a letter to students and parents that the mask rule was still in place, but would not be enforced, that’s like telling your child, ‘You still have your chores to do before bed, but nothing’s going to happen if you don’t do them,’” said Toro.
She stated that some members of the district’s board had publicly dismissed its memorandum of understanding with staff during the Tuesday board meeting.
“That’s very uncomfortable territory,” said Toro. “If today it was the memorandum about masks, so what will it be tomorrow? What will it be next week? What will it be next year, if we have a school board and superintendent who don’t respect that whole process?”
Nevada Union leadership teacher and activities director Peter Totoonchie said Wednesday that he believes this matter could have been handled more effectively, and that it still could be.
“A lot of my decision to call in for a (substitute) today has to do with the lack of clarity around what we’re actually supposed to be doing,” said Totoonchie. “We’re getting one set of guidelines obviously from the board — they were very clear in what they wanted to see happen — but we’re getting another set of guidelines from county health officials and the state.”
He said it was disheartening to see the district modify its mask enforcement protocol with so few days left before a potential change is made at the state level, adding that this had driven a wedge between teachers and administration, as well as between school system and community, at a time where support and understanding was needed.
‘NOT AN ORGANIZED WALKOUT’
Beth Whittlesey, an English Language Development teacher at Nevada Union, said Wednesday that one factor she considered when choosing to stay home that day was that teaching credentials are state-issued, and that she is concerned hers would be in jeopardy if she does not “enforce policies as they stand” as required by the state.
Whittlesey noted that state officials had signaled earlier this month that they would be reconsidering the school mask policy this coming week.
“I would be happy with the outcome if the state pulls the mask mandate and then we get to follow that. That’s great,” said Whittlesey. If the state made the decision, she said, she would no longer have concerns regarding her credentials, and there would no longer be an issue about the teachers’ contract.
“This was not an organized walkout,” said Eric Mayer, a Nevada Union physics teacher and president of the Nevada Joint Union High School Teachers Association. He added that he had been absent from the school that day, but that his colleagues who had done the same had made individual decisions to do so.
Mayer said that he was working on an open letter that day, and that one of the points he would be including in it was that the teachers’ union bargains in good faith, and “when one side can simply choose not to honor what was mutually agreed upon, the trust between our members and the district just evaporates.”
He echoed Whittlesey’s concerns regarding the potential impact to teachers’ credentials, referring to policy from the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing which says there may be consequences “for immoral or unprofessional conduct, or for persistent defiance of and refusal to obey the laws regulating the duties of persons serving in the public school system.”
Mayer pushed back against rhetoric he said he’s seen locally characterizing teachers as not wanting to work, or being “in support of masking or government overreach.”
“I do want to clarify that we want the best for our students, and that includes being at school and keeping school open, and we have worked tirelessly since the pandemic to do our absolute best to do that,” he said. “And the way that we do that is being supported by a robust contract in a district that will also honor that contract.”
During the board’s discussion on the resolution Tuesday, Trustee DuWaine Ganskie raised the issue of the board’s prior agreement with district staff.
Referencing a memorandum of understanding signed into effect by district teachers as well as the board last September in regards to COVID-19 protocol, Ganskie stated the agreement included terms such as face coverings being worn at all times when indoors and on-campus — and that any changes to items in the agreement be made through written, mutual agreement.
While he stated he was not against the resolution itself, Ganskie said his issue was with the process. When the resolution came to a vote, he abstained.
“I believe in order and process and following rules — we agreed with the teachers that we would come to them and mutually agree, in writing, to change the (memorandum),” he said. “That’s what we need to do, that’s what Superintendent (Brett) McFadden has asked to do today. Passing a resolution before that is complete is against the process.”
Trustee Jamie Reeves echoed Ganskie’s concerns regarding the impact of passing the resolution, stating that staff and teachers had not been given an opportunity at that point to participate in discussion or to engage in a compromise.
“I believe that, if we pass this resolution as a board, we’ve effectively bypassed any chance our administration has to work with our teachers,” said Reeves. Later in the meeting, she voted against the resolution.
In reference to the memorandum of understanding in effect, Trustee Jim Drew said Tuesday, “’Memorandum’ — it doesn’t hold a lot of weight. It ranks about probably right below a mandate. It’s not a law, it’s something that we agree on and I agree with that, but there are provisions in that (memorandum of understanding) that give us some authority, too, to maybe make some manipulation … when there are some conflicts.”
Expressing his support for the resolution Tuesday, Trustee James Hinman said, “We’re not saying, ‘Don’t wear masks,’ we’re changing one word in there, from ‘mandatory’ to ‘optional,’ and the people that have to wear it and the parents are the ones to best decide whether or not that’s what you want to do.”
He stated that he did not believe teachers’ credentials would be taken away by the state over this matter. “I still have a credential, they can take mine — but I don’t think they’re going to do that, so to make that complaint is silly,” he said.
Board President Pat Seeley stated the resolution was not stopping the mask mandate in schools. “We are just not enforcing students from being ejected from the classroom because they decide not to wear a mask,” she said.
Drew, Hinman, and Seeley voted in favor of the resolution Tuesday, meaning the resolution passed after receiving three votes in favor and one opposed, with one abstention. Student Trustee Anthony Pritchett voted against the resolution Tuesday, although as a student trustee, his vote did not count toward the outcome.
A SIGNIFICANT EFFECT
Asked about the impact of the approximately 40 teachers’ absence on Nevada Union’s operations Wednesday, McFadden said it was “horrible,” adding that having that many teachers out had a significant effect on the instructional environment.
Regardless of where someone stands on issues surrounding masks or vaccines, said McFadden, how people act and treat each other “has a huge impact on what happens at local schools, unlike that of any other local government.” He said all parties, regardless of where they stand on the pandemic, “need to be mindful of how we’re attacking people and the visceral nature of our actions.”
McFadden stated that this kind of response was “coming from all sides.” He added, however, some people spoke against masks at the Tuesday board meeting and were able to give their comments uninterrupted, while those on the opposing side came up and ”people started to yell at them, boo and hiss, and that wasn’t right.“
He stated that a board has a right to take a position, as do citizens and voters, but when it is done “with such division, animosity and anger,” he as a school administrator is left to pick up the pieces afterward.
“I am very, very concerned that, when we get past this, it’s going to take years to repair the damages in the relationships and trust,” said McFadden. “And, the only way a school district works, given all of the laws and the requirements and the restrictions that we have when it comes to operating a school in the state of California, we have to have a positive environment to teach kids.”
McFadden said Wednesday that the district’s administration would be sitting down with teachers’ representatives through a collective bargaining process, and that he was optimistic that they would be able to have a dialogue. He added that he was not certain at that point what the outcome of that would be.
Victoria Penate is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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