In a contentious three-hour meeting featuring verbal swipes from both sides of the reopening schools issue, trustees for the Fullerton Joint Union High School District [FJUHSD] reached unanimous agreement Tuesday to go back to the hybrid learning model for the first time this year with live instruction beginning Feb.16.
“What has been consistent from national and state authorities is that we should open the schools,” board president Marilyn Buchi said after nearly two hours of public comments in which those advocating a return to the classroom outnumbered those opting for teachers to get vaccinated first by a 2 to 1 margin. “New York is saying open the schools, Chicago is saying open the schools, California’s governor is saying open the schools.”
Using data collected from the Orange County Register, trustee Joanne Fawley shared a chart indicating the rate of positive COVID-19 cases in Orange County increasing since the board’s decision to start the hybrid learning model Nov. 2 and reaching its highest point at nearly 20% on Jan. 12. As of Tuesday’s board meeting, the rate has dropped by almost a half to nearly 11%.
While still in the state’s purple tier — the most restrictive one — Orange County as of Feb. 3 has reached nearly a quarter of a million positive coronavirus cases with nearly 3,200 deaths, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.
Despite positivity rates of those contracting the coronavirus trending down recently compared with the statistics from last December, an Accolade poll of more than 300 respondents as of Feb. 3 showed most (38%) favoring the district to remain in the distance learning model in which students Zoom in for their virtual classroom instruction.
Another 35% felt reopening depended on what happens with vaccinations and rates of positive COVID-19 cases, while 27% voted for students and parents being given the option to decide whether to attend in-person classes.
Fawley, who represents those living in the Sunny Hills attendance area, was also the first to offer for discussion the suggestion to start hybrid learning Feb. 16 after the three-day President’s Day holiday weekend instead of the originally scheduled board proposal to restart Feb. 9.
“It would be nice to be all together again,” Fawley said. “I think that Feb. 16 is a date that I’m comfortable with considering the timing will help avoid a yo-yo in cases but not discourage us from never going back to hybrid.”
The path for reopening schools wasn’t so clear for the board member earlier in the discussion.
“I am very conflicted about [our] next step forward,” Fawley told the other four trustees. “I don’t claim to have the right path. I do claim to be looking at objective data, not cherry picking it.”
Tuesday’s FJUHSD emergency board meeting, which one of the board members said drew more than 300 Zoom attendees — was the second unscheduled one of the year after trustees had unanimously agreed in their regularly scheduled December gathering to close down live-classroom instruction despite a large number of parents and two FJUHSD teachers imploring the board during the public comments portion to keep schools in the hybrid learning model.
Superintendent Scott Scambray, who has informed the board of his plans to retire at the end of this school year, has also been an advocate of parents wanting to keep campuses open but had been unable to sway a majority of trustees to agree with him until Tuesday.
Each time the board met thereafter to discuss the possibility of reopening campuses, it has been met with a barrage of speakers during the public comments time of the meeting in addition to an undisclosed amount of emails from both sides of the issue. Tuesday’s session was no different even though the board has explained in past meetings that it is not bound to directly respond to or act on any of the statements made.
While the last emergency board meeting drew four teachers against reopening vs. two parents urging the board to open campuses, Tuesday night’s ratio of speakers for or against schools reopening resembled the regularly scheduled Jan. 12 meeting, though this time it was more than double the amount of presenters from both sides of the argument.
With some of the speakers having shared their thoughts in past board meetings, that ended up prompting those same presenters who spoke this time to banter over previous statements during and before Tuesday’s gathering.
Adam Nazaroff, a parent of a Sonora student, criticized the professionalism of a teacher who told the board in the last meeting what parents should do if they feel their children are deprived of social interaction with their peers.
“I was aghast at hearing a teacher actually blaming parents for why distance learning is not working — it is completely unprofessional,” said Nazaroff, also urging the board to ignore the statistic of 60% of students in the FJUHSD who signed up for distance learning vs. the 40% number of students who want to attend school in a hybrid learning model — data that Scambray cited in response to a board member’s question from the last meeting.
The Sonora parent again emphasized how much safer it would be for students to be on campus during the coronavirus pandemic while urging trustees to heed human voices over statistics.
“Why are we talking about the safety of children as in relation to COVID when they have more dangers out there driving every day and getting in a car accident,” said Nazaroff, who was one of 19 who spoke in favor of reopening the campuses for live instruction. “I’d ask that the board not rely on dashboards from here and there from public officials and please just rely on what the administrators are requesting.”
After two other speakers, Buena Park High School English teacher Nolina Beauchamp was summoned to speak, but this time countering the comments Nazaroff made from the Jan. 26 meeting — the same one she had appeared in — and providing a bleak image of what could happen if trustees reopened schools.
“Most of us teachers are working harder than we ever have in our careers, and our reward is parents and community members now telling us to suck it up and go back to the classroom because this is what we signed up for,” said Beauchamp, one of 10 teachers who spoke against reopening campuses for in-person instruction. “There is nothing in my contract that says I signed up to teach in person jeopardizing our health and safety in a pandemic. We signed up to teach English, science, math, art, music and theater; we did not sign up to risk our health; we did not sign up to die.
“Please don’t ask us to die for the kids. I cannot teach from the grave.”
Earlier, two Sunny Hills English teachers also made pleas to the board contrary to Beauchamp’s concerns about health and safety — English Department chairman Scott Rosenkranz, who last spoke to the board in its December meeting, and Suzanne Boxdorfer, a former administrator in the FJUHSD.
“There remains no causal or corollary evidence suggesting that hybrid or distance learning has either contributed to an increase or decrease in COVID hospitalization or deaths in our community,” said Rosenkranz, noting the downward trend of positive COVID-19 cases and decrease in number of ICU patients in hospitals.
Boxdorfer addressed a concern raised by some from the last meeting that health and safety protocols at FJUHSD campuses were being ignored.
“I walk through the office building at Sunny Hills almost daily — the office is safe,” she said. “I walk to and from my car; I walk to the coffee room and even walk [around] the campus at break — everyone is masked; everyone is distanced. The campus is safe.”
But that’s not what another Sunny Hills colleague, Math Department chairwoman Mariam Tan, felt about the campus.
“Right now, being back on campus is not safe,” Tan told the board more than a half-hour into the public comments portion of the meeting. “I’ve always thought of myself as someone whose main purpose was to help students understand and grow a passion for math.
“However, these last few months have shown me that my main purpose is also to keep my students safe from both the virus itself and the emotional toll that the virus can take on a family.”
The teachers union president was offered her chance to speak near the end of the public comments session, giving a statement that attempted to sort out the glaring differences among instructors throughout the district.
“I found it insulting that as leader of our teachers union I, and many of our members, are being accused of orchestrating an effort to keep our teachers at home; I assure you we are not,” said Angie Cencak, president of the Fullerton Secondary Teachers Organization, who in the last meeting had cited a survey of FJUHSD instructors that showed of those who responded, 80% had reservations about the safety issue of working on campus. “We are so very close to a vaccine for our teachers, why not wait until that time is here and why not help us get that vaccine sooner?”
The bickering was also apparent among board members during their discussion portion of the meeting as two trustees — Fawley and Lauren Klatzker — took offense to the board president’s assessment of the schools reopening issue.
“I was on a Zoom call last week, and one of the speakers who works in Sacramento said, ‘You know, this isn’t science, it’s political science,’ and it’s kind of funny because you wonder whether the politics are involved in this or whether it is pure science. … The schools are not places of rampant transmission of the virus.”
The “political science” reference drew the ire of Fawley, who shared that she was also a part of that Zoom meeting Buchi alluded to.
“It offended me in a disparaging way,” she said. “In this case, it’s looking at how best to allocate the resource of education given the pandemic and given the scarcity of tools to fight that pandemic, and so while the speaker felt that was funny, that’s the reality we’re in.
“Where there’s funding choices — and thankfully we have enough money to provide many things like the livestream cameras and the thermal temperature checks — these were big line item issues; yet quoting someone who is disparaging about the role of political leaders is not helpful because we’re all political leaders.”
Fawley also alluded to a statement Buchi made about safety and next steps in which the board president said, “I feel very strongly assured about the safety of everyone, and we cannot continue stringing these people along week after week about continuing distance learning or returning to school.”
Fawley countered that by saying, “There is no intent to string people along — we are trying our best to figure out a path forward. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if we hadn’t decided to open hybrid in the fall. So at least we did that; we did provide that option and now we are trying to determine if it is the right time to continue with that option.
“Yes, it is nice to have choice; that choice should be in the safest possible environment given what we know.”
Klatzker, who has one of her two sons enrolled at Sunny Hills High, took issue with Buchi’s reference to keeping schools closed solely because of fear mongering.
“I did not decide to join [my son in] Cohort C out of fear; I did it because I felt it was the safest option for my multi-generational family, and my multi-generational home,” she said. “I would like to depoliticize our conversation by taking the word, ‘fear,’ out because a lot of us are not making fear-driven decisions; we are making decisions based on the data that makes sense for our families.”
It was also Klatzker who urged Scambray and school site administrators to work with staff on each campus next week to reflect on the effectiveness of the health and safety protocols that were enacted last November, and whether anything needs to be changed or clarified so all would be on the same page — despite Scambray’s claim that no one has addressed violations of those protocols to principals.
Nevertheless, that was a main reason for delaying the start of hybrid learning from Feb. 9 to Feb. 16.
“As educators, one of our best practices as educational leaders is reflection,” Klatzker said. “We are talking about student and staff safety, and we must consider how we are going to do better to keep them safe during this really unsafe time.”