Sequoia Union High School District administrators violated a memorandum of understanding with its teachers by denying employees who have extenuating health or family circumstances the opportunity to continue to work from home when district classrooms reopen on Monday, April 5, a frustrated SDTA Sequoia District Teachers Association president told the district's governing board last week.
The denials came via what teachers described as "impersonal" mid-March emails. The emails instructed employees to work with their site administrators to find a solution if it was a child care issue, according to a copy of the email obtained by The Almanac. If it was related to a medical accommodation, documentation would need to be resubmitted.
The MOU, signed in early March, states: "regardless of the county tier that the district is in, the district will work with employees who have extenuating health or family circumstances that may affect their ability to return to work. SDTA and the district will work together to determine the application process and criteria for applications to work remotely for reasons other than medical condition or disability."
"At this point we have members under great mental and emotional stress," teachers union President Edith Salvatore said during a Wednesday, March 24, meeting. "These were members who voted for our MOU because we assured them that the district agreed to this. It's in writing (that) they will live up to their end of the bargain. … It is very difficult to look forward to the very heavy load we will carry knowing the district doesn't have our back on this."
The union filed grievances on March 22 and 23 "to hold the district accountable" for the language in the agreement the district violated, Salvatore said. The district has denied the first of the two grievances, claiming in its response that officials did not "blanket deny" all accommodation requests, though they have not provided any documentation to corroborate that claim despite the union's request for a list of the names of all applicants and whether they were approved by the district, she said.
Salvatore said the board commended the union's 91% approval of the MOU, but to her the approval was "embarrassing" because the union normally ratifies agreements with 98% approval.
"Apparently those 9% knew better than we did about who we could trust," she said, noting that she feels as if the union members were naive.
During the meeting, Woodside High School Principal Diane Burbank and Menlo-Atherton High School Principal Simone Rick-Kennel said that there haven't been blanket denials of teacher accommodations at their school sites. Burbank said at least two were approved by the district for lack of child care or someone in their household who had medical issues.
"It was not our intention to appear that we do not care about our teachers and staff," said Jacqueline McEvoy, assistant superintendent of human resources and student services, during the meeting. She apologized if teachers thought their applications were not read and she said the lack of teachers' trust in district administrators "saddens (her) greatly." "We read each application. ... As we went through those documents, we realized that as a team of three (people), that it was difficult for us to make decisions regarding flexibility because teachers' schedules are different, their needs are different. ... Based on the information we had, we couldn't make a lot of decisions about flexibility."
She noted that for every teacher who works remotely, there is another person, a substitute teacher, paraprofessional or an instructional aide, who needs to be in the classroom with the students. "That is a large human resources cost — financial and human cost," she said. School site administrators have a better ability to determine if they have enough substitutes to cover staff that want accommodations, she said.
Trustee Chris Thomsen said the district needs to acknowledge the "real hurt feelings" teachers have. Board Vice President Carrie Du Bois said there's healing that needs to take place in the community.
Trustee Shawneece Stevenson said the district is going through a difficult transition of "going back to normal" with the reopening. There needs to be different communication styles with staff and students going forward to be more sensitive to the crisis the community is enduring, she noted.
"The more you are divided, the more you are conquered," she said.
Some teachers went into spring break this week not knowing if they would be required to return to campus next week or could continue to work remotely.
As of early afternoon on Thursday, April 1, Pablo Aguilera, a social studies teacher at Sequoia High School, said he was still awaiting word if he could take a leave instead of returning to his classroom after his accommodation request was denied by the district. By 3 p.m. he heard back from a school administrator that he could work remotely.
Aguilera's 5-month-old daughter's pediatrician said her age range would be at high risk of getting sick if he was exposed to the virus at school. He is vaccinated, but it's still unclear if vaccinated people can spread the virus to people who are unvaccinated. He also lives in the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park, where he is already facing increased exposure to the virus, and the majority of his students live in North Fair Oaks, which would put him at higher risk of getting sick and spreading it to his daughter. Both communities have been hard hit by the virus.
Conversely, his wife, a high school teacher at for the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, emailed her district's HR department at the same time, with the same letter from their pediatrician, and got a response back in 12 hours saying she was approved to work remotely.
Aguilera said it is hard to have faith that the district will provide a safe learning environment during the pandemic when teachers had to buy their own tissues and hand sanitizer for their classrooms for weeks before remote learning started last March.
Glenda Ortez-Galan, the head counselor at East Palo Alto Academy, said during the meeting that her principal was able to accommodate her request to continue to work at home since she has two children continuing with distance learning, including one who has a disability. Her initial request to work remotely was denied via a "canned email" from the district, she said.
"While I'm thankful our principal will accommodate me, I worry about my classified and certified staff throughout the district whose administrators are not willing to accommodate them and are left to figure it out on their own," she said.
Other teachers advocated for their colleagues at the meeting. Ellen Jacobson, a district teacher, said she was "disheartened" to hear the district has denied her colleagues the ability to continue to work from home because of their lack of child care and that site officials are having to handle the "fall-out." Another teacher said she was horrified by the violations of the MOU and that the denials made teachers feel that they are not valued by the community.
As of Wednesday, March 31, Salvatore heard school administrators had been able to make some accommodations, but she has heard nothing official, she said in an email.
Video of the meeting can be viewed, here.