With a surge of COVID-19 cases, the Sequoia Union High School District governing board plans to meet Thursday to urge government officials to "immediately" dedicate emergency public health workers and funding to the district amid staffing shortages, a need for support administering COVID-19 tests and more. The teachers union head is also reporting that the district is increasing pay for teachers who cover absent teachers' classes.
The district reported a startling 710 cases just last week upon students' return from winter break.
A proposed board resolution, asks the state and federal government to deploy emergency public health care workers and staff to the district so it can have adequate COVID-19 tests, testing services/clinics, vaccination clinics and medical services.
The resolution notes that California's public schools are not staffed, funded and "adequately trained" to provide public health department services. The district also needs the state to offer additional COVID-19-related leave to employees who have to quarantine if they test positive, the district said.
According to the resolution: "Contact tracing, COVID-19 testing, monitoring of students' and staffs' symptoms of potential illness, safety mitigation resources, and safety protocol mandates have burdened public school staff with additional responsibilities well beyond their staffing, funding, resources, and training, and have thereby shifted the focus of public schools, teachers, and staff from educating students to instead prioritizing the performance of public health department duties and functions. School districts are currently straining under the staffing shortages and demands caused by the pandemic and the necessary resources required to keep students, staff and communities safe. Immediate and significant staff and support from state and federal agencies and officials is an emergency need for our public schools."
On Wednesday, Superintendent Darnise Williams said in a statement that "given the ever-evolving reality created by COVID, it is critical that the community view the steps the district is taking to keep our schools safe."
The Sequoia District Teachers Association (SDTA) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on Wednesday morning to raise the pay rate for teachers who cover another teacher's class, according to teachers union president Edith Salvatore, in an email.
With this MOU, the district is recognizing the much "higher rate of in-house coverage" that members are providing and they have set the compensation at $75 per 50-minute period and $150 for an 85-minute "block" period, retroactive to the beginning of the school year and lasting through the end of the year, she said.
By contract, the rate for an SDTA bargaining unit member to cover the vacant class for a colleague is set at 25% of the daily sub rate (50% for a block class). At the beginning of this school year, that meant that teachers were earning $41.25 daily/$82.50 for a block class. In November, the district raised the sub rate to $240/day, meaning coverage rates went up to $60/$120 by contract.
"We have only just communicated this to our members, but I believe it will help morale," Salvatore said. "And while we agree that the state or federal government should definitely be providing covid sick leave (since it is, at this point, the price of doing business if the state wishes to keep schools 'open' for in-person learning), we don't think the district should wait for that to be resolved before committing to cover COVID absences for our members who have been forced to quarantine already this year."
If the state agrees to provide leave, the budgets can be adjusted back, but it's important that members know now that their accumulated leave will be kept intact or, if they've already exhausted that leave, that they won't have their daily pay deducted should they be forced to quarantine in order to safeguard student and community health, she said.
Recent district actions during the pandemic
The district also outlined all of the measures it's taken to keep schools open, including:
1. Maintain partnership with Worksite Labs for testing and contact tracing.
2. Offer mass testing for students and employees on Monday, Jan. 17, through Sunday, Jan. 24, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
3. Deploy district office staff to schools to assist with classroom coverage.
4. If state or federal law does not provide additional COVID-19-related leave this school year, the district will negotiate with its labor partners regarding COVID-19 leave for purposes of quarantining employees that test positive for COVID-19. The district will rely on emergency response package funding, if available, for such leave.
5. Encourage community members and parents to apply for employment with the district to temporarily fill COVID-19-related vacancies (substitute teaching, custodial, etc.)
The district temporarily suspended contact tracing because it doesn't have enough staffing to cover the surge in cases, according to the resolution.
Prior to winter break, the district, which has roughly 11,000 students and staff members, had only about 175 cases in total during the entire fall semester.
The board will also meet in closed session at 3:30 p.m. with the teachers union, unrepresented employees and classified staff over labor negotiations.
District administrators will also update the board on testing, vaccinations, labor force recruitment and continuity of learning measures.
The school board meets at 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 13 in person in the Birch Room in the district office, 480 James Ave. in Redwood City, and over Zoom.