The Newark Teachers Association’s nearly 300 members last week shot down a tentative reopening agreement negotiated with the Newark Unified School District by less than a three percent margin — just seven votes, according to district and union officials.
That vote marked the second time in the month the union members narrowly rejected ratifying the plans, after the two sides had met to hammer out a deal more than a dozen times since February.
One day after the union vote, the district school board voted 4-1 during a special meeting on April 15 to unilaterally go forth with the latest opening plans in the tentative agreement with the union, overriding the teachers.
“It’s really time for students to come first, there’s been enough delaying,” board member Terrence Grindall said at the meeting.
“My concern is once we pull this trigger, we might in many ways be at the point of no return. There is a reason why this is called the nuclear option,” board president Bowen Zhang said.
Board member Aidan Hill voted against the mandate, saying he thought the two sides could try again for a deal that would be ratified.
“The decision whether and when to reopen schools for in-person instruction is, by law, a management prerogative,” Superintendent Mark Triplett wrote in a letter to the district community on April 16.
The district “will continue to negotiate in good faith with NTA over negotiable impacts” of the reopening, “and seek NTA’s full support” to bring students back,” he said.
“However, time is of the essence, and it is imperative we make clear to our families that those who wish to return to in-person instruction will have the opportunity to do so,” he said.
The district, which serves roughly 5,600 students, will offer a phased in hybrid instructional model, in which kids whose families want them to return to classrooms will attend in-person learning part of each week.
“My initial gut reaction was shock but not surprise,” Megan McMillen, the vice president of the teachers union said in an interview Tuesday about the school board’s overriding vote. “And I was angry,” she said.
“They employed the nuclear option and it has caused a bit of chaos since the vote,” she said, noting some teachers are unsure about what would happen next.
The district was set to hold a town hall meeting Tuesday night to discuss reopening plans with the community.
McMillen said some teachers who voted against the agreements are not lacking desire to return to schools, but instead are concerned about safety protocols for themselves and their students.
“There is a lack of confidence in the district’s ability to uphold some of their agreements,” McMillen said.
“They don’t just want promises that things will be done, they want evidence that things have been done,” she said.
Triplett said at the April 15 meeting the latest tentative agreement negotiated with teacher union leaders included strict cleaning and daily disinfecting protocols, assurances that ventilation systems at the schools are using advanced filters, and he said there would be air purifiers with HEPA filters in every room.
Only 50 had been ordered so far, with more promised if the agreements were approved, staff said.
Lastly, the district said it has spent nearly $360,000 on “needlepoint bipolar ionization” technology for its ventilation systems which kill mold, viruses, and allergens, as a further layer of protection. Students and teachers would also be required to wear masks and socially distance themselves from others.
Triplett said the district has provided multiple opportunities for teachers and staff to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, and has offered “unprecedented” free childcare to all staff, because some may have children in other districts that aren’t open.
McMillen said some of the documentation on the ventilation systems teachers were shown fell short of assurances they were seeking that all the equipment would function as the district said it will.
McMillen also said the challenge for some teachers is in weighing out the benefits versus the harms of returning to school for students.
“For the limited number of instructional days we have remaining, this is going to cause a lot of upheaval to hard-fought wins in routine for a number of our students. There is no way to do this without disruption,” she said.
McMillen said another union vote to ratify an agreement could happen this week or early next week.
One parent, Anabel Zarate, said she is upset with the board for overriding the teachers, and feels they wouldn’t have shot down agreements without good reason.
“I trust the teachers a lot more than (Mark) Triplett,” she said.
She said she’s frustrated that Newark appears to be one of only very few districts in Alameda County that are still “in a state of limbo” with only several weeks of schooling left, and it’s too late to make kids adjust again to new plans.
“They’re going to have to learn how to navigate campuses during Covid” with masks and social distancing and new precautions, she said.
“As soon as the kids get their routines down, it’s time to go on summer break. It’s not worth the risk,” she said.
Another parent, Ramon Medina, who has a daughter with special needs, said he hasn’t seen any clear plans from the district that would ensure her needs will be met if she were to return to school.
“My daughter would love to go back,” Medina said.
He said he’s frustrated by a lack of transparency and planning from the district.
“We’re already stressed out enough,” he said. “For them to be real vague, does not help us make a decision if my daughter is going to be safe, if everyone will be safe.”