Contra Costa, Calif. Teachers Union Prevents Strike Over COVID-19 Safety Measures

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Saturday, January 29 at 3 a.m., United Teachers of Richmond (UTR) reached a tentative agreement with the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) on COVID-19 protocols. The union had threatened to strike during the week if an agreement was not reached by Friday noon.

The union had surveyed its members by email last week and 72% of respondents were ready to strike. Requests included KN95 masks for students and teachers, weekly testing and qualified instructors in all classrooms. Due to numerous COVID-related absences among staff, the latest request involved higher compensation for substitute teachers.

The devastating impact of COVID on residents and schools in Contra Costa County, California has already made public education severely limited. Last week, 62 classrooms were closed due to infections. So many students have called in sick that open classrooms are often almost empty. Of a student body of 27,000, 2,186 have tested positive and 305 staff among the district’s 27,000 employees have contracted the disease.

Richmond High School (Credit: West Contra Costa Unified School District, wccusd.net)

The county has a population of just 1,165,927, but the health department has reported 175,257 cases and 1,102 deaths. Children particularly suffer. The 7-day moving average for youth under 11 is 189.5 per 100,000. For the 12-18 age group, the average is 183 per 100,000.

On Facebook, district officials said, “Our ventilation systems are working in all of our schools and they are being maintained and modified.” A teacher replied, “What ventilation? Open doors and windows? Many schools do not have ventilation systems, and WCCUSD initially only distributed cloth masks. Last week, after two years of the pandemic, Superintendent Kenneth Hurst announced that he discovered that cloth face masks provided inadequate protection. They have now ordered KN95 masks.

Staff absences prompted Superintendent Hurst to threaten teachers: “employees who coordinate to call in sick together are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Gabrielle Micheletti, the Elementary Director of UTR, responded to Hurst by stating, “We [the union] I don’t want to be outside the classrooms and further disrupt students’ routine…”

This expresses the opposition of teachers’ unions to the mobilization of teachers to demand adequate security measures. It is also a slap in the face to the 16 teachers from two schools who walked off the job in early January due to dangerous conditions in their classrooms.

The union has released highlights of the agreement, which include the daily supply of KN95 masks to staff and students, weekly COVID-19 tests and a salary increase for substitute teachers and primary teachers who volunteer for take additional students.

UTR President Marissa Glidden declared the agreement a victory. Despite the mitigation measures, staff and students are still crammed into classrooms. This is dangerous and the exceptionally high infection rates in the school district clearly show that the virus will continue to spread.

The agreement announced by UTR comes only shortly after the Oakland Education Association (OEA) announced its own tentative agreement with the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) on COVID safety protocols. Similarly, OAS President Keith Brown said a strike would be called if an agreement was not reached.

The OAS was pushed to make this threat because of powerful unauthorized teacher sick leave and student walkouts.

Students, teachers and parents who are increasingly furious with the return to school education have participated in work stoppages, walkouts, protests and petitions around the world. But unions, particularly the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have pushed the deadly policy of reopening schools. The agreements with OUSD and WCCUSD do not protect the health of staff and young people.

Teachers must organize to reject these deals by organizing independently of pro-corporate unions. West Coast Educator Safety Committees (WCERFSC) unite educators, students and parents against the subordination of lives to profit. The WCERFSC asks:

Immediate closure of school buildings until teachers themselves, on the advice of trusted scientists, determine it is safe to return

The implementation of fully-funded high-quality distance education

Financial support for all workers and small businesses affected by the temporary closures

A mass screening and contact tracing programme, including children, with thousands of screening and vaccination centers set up in all major cities

· A reversal of the CDC’s shortening of its quarantine guidelines. Those infected or exposed should be quarantined for at least 14 days, with full compensation for missed work

Mandatory masking with N95 or higher grade masks to be provided free of charge in all public places

A science education program for the working class, conducted with the help of scientists and doctors, to popularize the understanding of airborne transmission and all other science related to the pandemic

The installation of the highest quality HVAC and air filtration systems in each school

A tax on the West Coast’s 189 billionaires to support parents, educators and other workers affected by the pandemic

Do not miss the agreement in principle! Form base safety committees with colleagues and join us at our next WCERFSC meeting on Sunday, February 6, 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., to unite teachers in the defense of health and safety .

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