During its Aug. 19 regular meeting, the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education (LBUSD) heard opposition from educators and union leaders on the district continuing to require preschool and special-education teachers to work in classrooms despite a recent bargaining agreement allowing most teachers the flexibility to working offsite.
The board also heard criticism about an agenda item eliminating the reading aloud of public emails during meetings. The board decided to postpone voting on that item until its next meeting, after considering other public-commenting options, such as call-ins.
LBUSD and the Teachers Association of Long Beach (TALB) had reached a bargaining agreement earlier this week that included allowing most of TALB’s members to work from home or other location rather than school.
See related story: LBUSD teachers can now work from home
However, during Wednesday’s board meeting, teachers and TALB representatives expressed discontent that the memorandum of understanding (MOU) did not give all teachers that flexibility of choice.
Dr. Christine Kelly, president of TALB, called approving the MOU “gut wrenching,” though she said giving teachers flexibility could potentially prevent “dozens if not hundreds” of COVID-19 infections.
“Unfortunately, we were unable to provide the same protection for our teachers working with our youngest students,” Kelly said.
Kelly said teachers in LBUSD’s special-education, preschool and Head Start programs still have to work from schools. Though they are put at risk since even small children can contract and transmit COVID-19. The City of Long Beach has reported 373 coronavirus cases among children aged zero to nine years as of Aug. 19.
Kelly added that the board’s policy also sends a negative message about how it values preschool and special-education teachers, some of whom hold advanced degrees and many of whom are women of color.
Furthermore, while childcare is necessary for the city’s essential workers, some programs are only half days and some parents don’t work and so their children shouldn’t become health risks to teachers and their families, Kelly said.
“It needs to be adapted to virtual,” she said of early-childhood education.
Susan Garcia, another TALB board executive, called the MOU “flawed” and difficult to sign off on.
“Some of our members felt that we threw them under the bus,” Garcia said. “As a union, we believe an injury to one is an injury to all.”
She urged the LBUSD board to change its policy requiring some teachers to work in schools during the pandemic.
“Please pass a motion tonight for the district to allow all employees who can, the flexibility to work from their home or other worksite,” Garcia implored.
The board did not discuss the item further as it was not on the agenda. However, TALB and LBUSD bargaining teams were scheduled to continue negotiating on Thursday, Aug. 20.
LBUSD Superintendent Dr. Jill Baker told the Signal Tribune in an interview Aug. 20 that the district will not change its policy for those teachers unless new information arrives from the State about how it should approach preschool teaching.
“We’re trying to provide flexibility for as many teachers as possible, given educational constraints and requirements,” Baker said. “There’s some additional information coming from the State related to students with special needs and preschool students that may amend that plan.”
Baker added that the new information is from agencies that manage childcare settings and preschool licensing, authorization and certification.
“We’re trying to keep education going, especially for our most fragile kids,” Baker said.
The board also heard several public comments against an agenda item changing its recently adopted policy on reading emailed public comments out loud during meetings.
Members of the public commented in person during meetings until April, when meetings started being conducted virtually because of pandemic social-distancing requirements.
The public could still comment by email, which staff would read aloud during meetings. However, during recent meetings, the reading of emails has taken hours as parents, teachers and others– sometimes orchestrated by groups such as Parents of Teachers of LBUSD– have commented on hot-button issues related to racial equity and schools reopening.
When the board started convening in person again beginning Aug. 5– wearing masks and maintaining distance from each other– it heard public comments in person again, but also through emails read aloud.
During this week’s Aug. 19 meeting, Baker said staff recommended returning to only in-person public comments. Emailed comments would simply be forwarded to board members.
Several of the comments the board heard during the meeting– including two in person and 27 emailed– said changing the policy would be unfair to those who still found it difficult or unsafe to comment in person. Some also said changing the policy would specifically bar Black and Brown parents, who’ve been historically underrepresented at meetings.
“We want the public to hear the voices and learn from others,” one commenter wrote.
The board expressed some confusion over whether the agenda item was informational or needed a decision.
Board Member Dr. Felton Williams motioned to approve the change– with Vice President Jon Meyer seconding– but argued against it, saying that as an African American, he knows the importance of being heard and said the district has been commended for allowing public comments at all during meetings.
Williams suggested that the superintendent’s advisory committee, with its district-wide representation, should review the item and bring it back to the board with recommendations.
Board Member Dr. Juan Benitez also expressed reluctance to change the policy, saying extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and hearing public comments through any means lifts up community voices and provides the board with different perspectives. Not doing so would limit engagement, he said.
Board Member Megan Kerr concurred but suggested making the cutoff time for receiving comments earlier, such as at noon on meeting days rather than 20 minutes before the meeting start time.
She also suggested that staff research a public call-in system such as the one used in Long Beach City Council meetings so that people can comment in their own voices.
“At this point, it’s important to not decrease what we’re doing,” Kerr said.
Board President Diana Craighead noted that some recent comments have been repetitive with each other, taking away from the business of the meeting, and whether to read emails aloud could be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Ultimately, Williams retracted his motion and, after advisement from the board’s legal counsel Brent North, Kerr moved to table the motion until and through the next board meeting.
The board unanimously agreed to continue its current practice of hearing both in-person comments and emails read aloud at its next meeting on Sept. 2 but then revisit the matter and discuss alternatives.
“I want to make sure that this is done right,” Williams said.
Baker commended all staff for the board’s two-day workshop on Aug. 18-19 and also thanked LBUSD and TALB negotiating teams for their commitment to the bargaining
process and finding common ground over long hours last weekend.
“There are still some things to work out, but we have a signed MOU that really puts us in a good place for collaboration, “she said.
Baker also said that the district’s school opening and safety plan is on its website but 3,000 copies will be printed in English, Spanish and Khmer for those who need it.
She said staff is working on even more language support, including American Sign Language (ASL), for accessibility of board documents.
Finally, she said LBUSD’s Parent University will soon include information on the district’s new learning-management tool Canvas, as well as distance learning and special education.
“Stay tuned for lots of activity over the next weeks as we get ready to open school in a way that we have never done before,” Baker said.
The next regular LBUSD Board meeting will take place Wednesday, Sept. 2, at 1515 Hughes Way.