California Teachers Feel 'Disposable' as Gavin Newsom Pushes For Schools to Reopen

In the state hardest hit by the pandemic, a heated debate about the reopening of schools is underway—and teachers there are feeling unheard.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has been facing growing pressure to resume in-person instruction from parents keen to have children back in classrooms before the entire school year slips away.

He's faced pushback from teacher's unions, including the California Teacher's Association, that have called for all teachers to be vaccinated before returning to classrooms.

Last month, the embattled governor told the Association of California School Administrators that waiting to reopen schools until teachers had received vaccines was unrealistic.

Newsom's efforts appeared bolstered by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who said vaccinating teachers "is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools" on Wednesday.

She cited CDC data showing that social distancing and wearing a mask significantly reduce the spread of the virus in schools.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Newsom said he believed schools can start to reopen even if all teachers are not vaccinated against COVID-19, provided appropriate safety protocols are in place. He said he worried about growing inequity, noting that many private schools in the state were open.

Asked about Walensky's comments, Newsom said he "subscribes to the Biden administration's point of view."

But despite the apparent green light from the CDC, White House press secretary Jen Psaki demurred on the issue on Thursday, telling reporters that Walensky had been speaking "in her personal capacity."

"We're going to wait for the final guidance to come out so we can use that as a guide for schools around the country," she said.

She said President Joe Biden believes it should be a priority for teachers to be vaccinated but that other steps such as the wearing of masks, social distancing, and ventilation are important. "That's one of the reasons that we need funding, in order to be able to effectively ensure that public schools across the country are able to do that," she said.

Psaki added: "The president believes schools should be open. Teachers want schools to be open. Families want schools to be open. But we want to do it safely."

But several California teachers who spoke to Newsweek expressed doubts about whether those protocols alone would keep them safe.

"Nobody seems to care about our health"

COVID-19 cases in California have topped 3.3 million, more than any other state by far. Fewer than 5 million vaccine doses have been administered in the nation's most populous state, according to the California health department—almost a quarter of them in Los Angeles County.

Dawn Blocker, a special education teacher for sixth to eighth grade students in Shasta County, told Newsweek said she has been incredibly concerned for her health as she has been teaching around 20 students in person and around 10 others online.

"When my students share their weekend, it's very worrisome. I hear of outings, family gatherings, parties, and sleepovers," she said. "I wear double masks and have a plastic curtain across the front of my classroom. Desks are approximately three feet apart... there is no way we can do six feet."

Blocker said she felt relieved after recently receiving the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

But she added that while she has spent her 30-year career feeling proud of her profession, she is disheartened by what she feels is a lack of concern for teachers—both in California and nationwide—during the pandemic.

"It's as though we are dispensable, nobody seems to care about our health," Blocker said. "At 59, I do get scared and I have had friends who contracted the virus and one who died. Schools should be closed. Period."

She continued: "I love Biden but it makes my heart sink when the battle cry is "Open the Schools!" How about "Vaccinate the Teachers!"?

Chairs stacked at elementary school
Chairs, desk and other school furniture is stacked outside a classroom at a public elementary school in Glendale, California just north of Los Angeles, August 17, 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Jim Sanches, who teachers at a public charter school in the Sacramento area, agreed. He said he doesn't believe the benefits of opening schools before vaccines are more widely distributed outweigh the potential risks.

"While I understand the benefits of seeing and teaching your students in person, I'm not for opening schools for in-person education until teachers and other staff have been vaccinated," he told Newsweek.

"We're halfway through the school year... I don't believe the potential cost of someone's life is worth opening schools a few months before vaccines should become more readily available," he added.

Blocker said she returned to teach in-person partly due to financial concerns. "I can't afford to quit, and I care deeply for our kids," she said.

While she says her school administration have been "incredibly supportive," she described the atmosphere in her school as tense. "We can't get substitutes and any exposure causes people to be out to quarantine," she said. "There's a lot of stress in my field this year, and those who can are retiring."

Sanches said he loves his job and would "very likely" comply if his school resumed in-person teaching.

However, he said he would do so with extreme caution as he lives with his elderly mother. "That has also been a major factor in my reluctance to go back to in-person teaching," he explained.

"I don't understand why we aren't more of a priority"

Both Blocker and Sanches said online learning was not as detrimental to students as some critics have suggested.

Sanches said his students have adapted to it better than his fellow teachers, despite many of them dealing with economic hardship or having family members fall ill with COVID-19.

"Let us perfect distance instruction," rather than reopen schools, Blocker said. "Teachers as a group are highly creative and adaptable."

But Jerika Finnell, a special education teacher in El Centro, told Newsweek that online learning is "much more difficult" for students like hers, who have disabilities. "It's a different ballpark for us," she added.

Because of this, Finnell said she would return to work if her schools reopened, but said she doesn't believe it is currently safe to do so in her county.

Teachers should be given the option to get the vaccine before having to return to work, she said. "I don't understand why we aren't more of a priority," she added.

Finnell also expressed frustration about the criticism that has been leveled at teachers during the pandemic. "I wish people would stop calling us lazy," she said. "We aren't. We just want to be able to return safely."

Emily Stremfel, a fifth grade teacher at New Jerusalem Elementary School in Tracy, California, shared similar concerns.

Her school has also adapted to a hybrid teaching model, with some students taught in person while others are attending via Zoom.

She told Newsweek that parents were given the option to have their children continue learning online or have them return to class. Only nine of the 34 students in her class continued online, she said.

She has "mixed emotions" about it, she explained, because she wants the best for her students, but feels nervous about being exposed to the virus.

"I want the best for the kids not only academically, but mentally, as well," she said. "Being at school on campus is important for a variety of reasons."

"In my opinion, teachers should have already received the vaccine because we are sitting in an enclosed area for multiple hours with children," she said. "As their teachers, we have no control over the people they interact with and the places they go outside of school."

Although Stremfel has not received the vaccine, she said her husband, an EMT, has been vaccinated, as have her pharmacist parents.

"I know this is not the situation for most, so I am grateful that my family is protected," she said. "However, I believe there are situations where teachers should be excused from teaching in person. If they are at risk or a member of their family is at risk, that needs to be taken into consideration."

A teacher in Orange County, who wanted to be identified only as Anna, told Newsweek that teaching young children over Zoom was a struggle because teachers were not given adequate training.

Newsweek granted Anna anonymity because she said she feared losing her job, and have confirmed that she is a teacher.

After Anna's school moved to hybrid learning, offering a combination of in-person teaching and online learning, she said COVID-19 cases were under-reported so teachers didn't feel safe.

"Teachers feel disposable," she said. "We are essential but they won't test you. You are important but they won't inform you. You are valued but they have no plan to vaccinate you."

She added: "I do not think schools should reopen when numbers are high... if you can't sit on a patio to eat or visit your grandparents, how does it make sense to send the kids to school?"

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