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As North County school districts struggle to reopen amid teacher resistance, even an Escondido charter school system with total autonomy pushed back reopening school for in-person instruction after teachers rejected direction to return to the classroom this month.
Families of over 5,500 students from transitional kindergarten to high school who attend Classical Academy charter schools in Escondido, Vista and Oceanside were originally given the option to return to school on Jan. 19 until school leaders pulled back on those plans Friday.
The organization’s new goal is to bring larger groups of students back to campus on Feb. 1, but it doesn’t have a defined return-to-school date now. School leaders now plan to keep their eyes on the trajectory of state and San Diego County coronavirus case numbers and revisit their outlook on when’s best to return to school on a weekly basis.
Prior to the announcement, Cameron Curry, who runs several North County charter schools, was so insistent on reopening that he told his employees in a video on Jan. 4 that they either had to return to campus or work with his human resources department to leave their jobs. He said 70 percent of families indicated in a community survey they wanted to return to school.
“We’re here for the benefit of students and we want to support those students that want to come back. If you’re one of those employees who does not feel safe, who has a health condition, who really has a fear or anxiety, you do need to talk with HR because you are ultimately responsible for the destiny of your life – thing things you want to do, the things you want to pursue, the career you want to have, what you want to eat for dinner each night. … You can either be with us or you can choose to work with HR and leave the organization,” Curry told employees in the video. Employees who were concerned about having to choose between the risks and their jobs provided the video to VOSD.
Voice of San Diego talked to one staff member at Classical Academies who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions. They said they and their colleagues, concerned by a lack of support from leadership, opposed Curry’s ultimatum and said they should be able to decide when to return to school, particularly now that intensive care unit capacities are dwindling locally, and coronavirus cases are growing. The teacher said they’re relieved school leadership listed to them and pushed back reopening schools for larger groups. The teachers’ concerns aren’t unusual, but Classical Academy employees have fewer job protections because they’re not supported by a teachers union.
Facing pressure from parents, some North County schools have tried to open or stay open for in-person learning, but faced backlash from teachers unions and were hampered by staff shortages. At San Dieguito Union High School District in Encinitas, a teachers union sued over plans to reopen for in-person instruction this month, and the district pulled back. At Escondido Union School District, Vista Unified School District and others nearby, school leaders closed schools because they ran out of teachers, substitutes and other school personnel to run classes in person. Many employees had to quarantine after positive cases in their classrooms, and others called out of work for health reasons.
In an email to Voice of San Diego, Curry called the disagreement a misunderstanding. He said no teachers will be removed, fired or asked to leave the organization if they choose not to return to the classroom, but that he has no control over a teacher who looks at programming demands and chooses to leave.
“With all that being said, I have been in contact with many employees this past week and I appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight, provide comfort, understanding, apologize and clear up any confusion that resulted in my initial messages,” Curry wrote. “It’s all a matter of balancing what students need and what teachers can and will provide.”
Curry made the move to push off reopening and continue with small groups on campuses and distance learning across campuses following staff concerns and after meeting with school leadership Friday, he told Voice of San Diego. Michelle Stanley, a spokeswoman for Classical Academies, told VOSD that the organization will accommodate teachers who are concerned about returning to campus, and may allow them to continue with distance learning when classrooms reopen.
In an email to staff obtained by Voice of San Diego, Melissa Morey, chief human resource officer for Classical Academies, wrote to staffers on Jan. 5 that accommodations will be made for employees with a doctor’s note that specifies medical disability, and those who are caretakers of someone in poor health may qualify for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
The teacher who talked to Voice of San Diego also said they and their colleagues are also concerned the organization plans to fully reopen schools even though state guidelines say schools that weren’t already open prior to entering the Purple Tier cannot reopen in person. Stanley said the organization isn’t breaking state guidelines because some campuses had been open for small cohorts since the beginning of the pandemic.
But it’s not clear whether that interpretation is widely shared.
The California Department of Public Health determined that schools that were open for small cohorts prior to counties falling into the Purple Tier aren’t considered “open” and cannot move forward in opening to larger groups of students. Schools that were only open to small cohorts of students prior to San Diego County landing in the Purple Tier will need to wait until it is back in the Red Tier for two weeks to open for in-person instruction under state guidelines.
There is an exception: If an individual school had already started its phased reopening while the county was in the Red Tier, the county’s local health officer can allow that school to continue phasing in later grades even though the county reverted back to the Purple Tier. The exception doesn’t apply to whole school districts.
In a Youtube video on Friday, Curry told families about the new February return date, and that they’ll be notified of any future changes.
“We’re trying to be sensitive on what’s happening with the surge,” Stanley said.