February 19, 2021President's Perspective
Good afternoon, friends — good afternoon, UTLA family, parents, and community members.
It is great to have you joining us today. We have a lot to cover, including the rising political pressure to reopen physical schools before it’s safe and conversations happening on how we as educators should respond to protect our school communities.
We also have a quick update on bargaining and vaccines for educators, and we’ll mark a game-changing win by Black students on de-policing schools and shifting resources to supporting Black futures.
I begin today by recognizing our grocery workers who have been on the front lines of this pandemic since Day One, facing extraordinary risks.
These workers are our students, the parents of our students, and our significant others. Some educators have second jobs as grocery clerks to make ends meet.
We honor the sacrifice they make every day for all of us and we stand with them as they continue to fight for safer working conditions.
We Demand a Safe Return
I want to lift up everyone in this space. Educators, parents, and grandparents are doing amazing work in these intense times. Y’all are an inspiration, truly.
Now more than ever we are feeling the pressure to return to physical schools before we have the necessary conditions and measures in place to ensure
the safety of everyone. And the pressure is coming from all sides — from the media, the Chamber of Commerce, threats of lawsuits by city council-members, Governor Newsom, and county supervisors.
Local and state officials did not help create the right conditions to re-open schools for in-person instruction and educators are being targeted for trying to protect our students and our communities.
The pressure is painful and real and it sucks the joy out of our work with students.
But know this — we are in this together. UTLA educators have remained strong in our fight against the unsafe return to physical schools. Now we must lean into that unity.
Sooner rather than later, there could be legislation or another lever that will set an arbitrary date to physically reopen schools — a reopen date not set by science or in consultation with classroom practitioners. We could face a time when elected officials simply say, “Time to go back.”
As a union, we must have deep and wide conversations about how to respond if we receive a mandate to return to in-person teaching before it is safe.
On Wednesday, more than 900 UTLA Chapter Leaders voted overwhelmingly, 93% to 7%, to organize around a refusal to return for a full or hybrid physical reopening of schools until these safety conditions are met:
- One, LA County is out of the purple tier
- Two, All staff are either fully vaccinated or provided access to full vaccination
- And three, Safety conditions are in place in our schools, such as PPE, social distancing, ventilation and a cleaning regimen
Everyone needs to connect with your colleagues about these issues and where you stand. These conversations are happening in chapter meetings, CAT meetings, cluster meetings, and more.
This dialogue will be followed by an online vote of the full UTLA membership from Monday, March 1, through Friday, March 5. We need to come together and make a collective decision about what we are facing.
These conversations and the full member vote are critical to our next steps. Be sure to attend all UTLA chapter meetings in the coming days. This is a vote we take for ourselves and for our communities because we know our parents’ voices are not being heard. We all want our schools to reopen, but it must be done safely.
Senate Bill 86 was introduced yesterday in the state legislature in response to Governor Gavin Newsom’s call for early legislative action. We are encouraged by the state legislature’s effort to move away from an arbitrary and mandatory school reopening plan based on political pressure. They’ve made progress towards a plan that recognizes the relevance of community infection rates and the need to provide vaccines for all school staff. We hope the work continues to move in a positive direction. We look forward to state officials providing guidance for a more robust, uniform plan to make it safe for all of us to return to our schools.
Why It’s Not Safe to Return Right Now
Let’s be clear: the pressure building to return to schools is political. It is not science. Opening schools without proper protections will expose our children and our educators to COVID and could put families at risk of illness and death.
Armchair epidemiologists cite data out of context to match their agenda. The complexity of this virus does not lend itself to a click-bait headline. And what is true for a rural county in say, Wisconsin, is not true for Los Angeles.
Here are some of the reasons it is currently unsafe to reopen LAUSD schools
· One, LA County remains in the purple tier, and the communities we serve are at greater risk than others. Black, Latino, and Pacific Islander residents are dying at disproportionately higher rates and getting vaccinated at disproportionately lower rates. The COVID-19 death rate among Latinx families in L.A. County is three times the rate for white residents.
· Two, the overall LA County case rate does not reflect the infection levels in the LAUSD community. The state threshold for reopening elementary schools is 25 cases per 100,000 people, and that figure includes wealthy communities such as La Cañada, which has a level of less than 2 cases per 100,000. Many of the communities we serve have levels of the virus 15 times greater than those in La Cañada.
· Three, safety standards are being eroded. In November, the Department of Public Health said it was unsafe to reopen until cases were below 7 per 100,000. Suddenly, Gavin Newsom and the Department of Public Health claim it’s safe to reopen elementary schools at 25 cases per 100,000 people. Why the change? One major factor is pressure from the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests, which want our students’ parents to go back to work, no matter the danger to their or their families’ health.
· Four, troubling new COVID developments are not being taken seriously. LA County has reported a more than 35% increase in children with MIS-C, a rare and potentially fatal inflammatory syndrome. Latino children account for 72% of the reported cases. And the new virus variants in our communities are much more transmissible, may be more fatal, and could be more resistant to the vaccines, increasing the possibility of reinfection and another community surge in infections.
There are serious flaws in the latest CDC report. That report is being weaponized to push reopening. One big misconception is that the report mandates reopening physical schools. The CDC director specifically said the guidelines do not mandate reopening.
The CDC guidelines are a national strategy to return to in-person instruction. And because the guidelines are for the nation as a whole, they do not do enough to address the specific challenges of large urban school districts like LAUSD. Most troubling is that they do not require vaccinations for school staff, do not require six-foot distancing in all schools, and do not require improved ventilation as a key mitigation measure. All that might work in communities with extremely low infection rates, but it’s a non-starter for our schools.
Media Shuts LAUSD Parents Out of the Story
To turn up the pressure to return, the media and elected officials are trying to convince the public that parents are overwhelmingly demanding a return to physical school sites.
We know parents feel deeply on both sides of the issue, but in the LAUSD survey, 66% — almost two-thirds — of parents want to say they want to stay with remote learning. That matches with national polling data that shows that most parents do not want to send their children to physical schools during a life-threatening pandemic.
The voices of LAUSD parents are being shut out of the debate. UTLA is working with parents and community members to uplift their stories. Our strategy includes media outreach and holding reporters and news outlets accountable for not talking to the folx most impacted by the current debate.
Not My Child: Car Caravan Saturday
This weekend we have a chance this weekend to join our parents in uplifting all of our voices in a safe, socially distanced protest. On Saturday at 10 am, there will be a “Not My Child” Car Caravan in downtown LA with parents, students, and educators.
They will be demanding that schools reopen only when they are safe for all students and families – especially for Black and Brown communities that have been hit hardest by COVID-19. The caravan is being organized by ROSLA and LAANE and will meet at 10 am in front of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce in downtown LA. The Chamber is the target because of their reckless push to reopen schools that is putting profits over people’s lives.
Plan to be there Saturday. The link will be in the chat.
Latest on Bargaining
Since we shut down schools in March, our priority has been the health and well-being of educators, our students, and our school communities and getting back to in-person teaching and learning as soon as it is safe to do so.
We have been bargaining with LAUSD nonstop since last March on all the related issues.
Bargaining has shifted to focus on hybrid return plans for how to physically reopen schools when conditions are safer. On Thursday, we met with the
district but they did not provide enough details nor address the key areas on necessary conditions for a safe return.
Bargaining an agreement on how to physically reopen in a hybrid model does not mean such a reopening is imminent or near. We are bargaining in good faith over “how” to physically reopen in a hybrid model, and we have told the district that the agreement must include language over “when” to physically reopen in a hybrid model.
That “when” to reopen must follow the three main elements of a safe return:
- LA County is out of the purple tier
- All staff are either fully vaccinated or provided access to full vaccination
- Safety conditions are in place in our schools, such as PPE, social distancing, ventilation
and a cleaning regimen
Educators eligible for vaccinations March 1
As far as vaccinations for educators, there have been some developments on that front.
It was announced this week that educators are among the next group of essential workers in LA County who will be eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations starting March 1. That’s good news, but we know that the availability of vaccines are expected to remain limited for at least a while.
LAUSD has opened its first school-based COVID-19 vaccination center at Roybal Learning Center near downtown Los Angeles and has begun vaccinating educators over age 65. District officials are working to open additional school-based sites. One of those could be a major one at Hollywood Park for educators and other school staff. We are pressing LAUSD for details on how vaccine signups will roll out.
For anyone who is over 65 or has helped a family member try to get vaccinated, you know there have been the challenges to getting appointments. Some call it the “vaccine lottery.” I am so grateful that my mama, Mary has now received her second shot. We are of course staying masked up and safe, but we are resting easier at my house knowing that she is vaccinated. I think she has called all her friends and our relatives encouraging them to do so as well.
As we’ve said before, the district has notified UTLA of their intent to require COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment for all employees. Those with medically verified health risks or “sincerely” held religious beliefs would be exempt.
Invest in Black Futures
Now we are onto a win this week that is so inspiring, so righteous — it truly shows that the youth of today are building a new future.
In a victory driven by Black students and their stories, the LAUSD School Board this week voted unanimously to cut the school police and invest in Black students.
The motion calls for $25 million to be diverted from the school police department and an additional $11 million to be spent to support Black students, including:
- counselors, ethnic studies, restorative justice counselors,
- PSWs, PSAs, and other supports
- bringing School Safety Coaches to every secondary school to build positive relationships and to coach students through conflicts
- creating an LAUSD Division on Black Student Success and a Community Steering Committee
- investing in 10 Community Schools from the 53 significantly Black schools
In addition, police officers will no longer be stationed at school campuses, and the use of pepper spray and chokeholds on students are banned.
Okay, that last part should make us all pause — only now have they banned the use of pepper spray and chokeholds on our babies, our students — the young people who come to our schools to learn and thrive.
The wins codify a new vision for supporting Black student achievement, and they create a concrete pathway for reimagining student safety and building alternatives to keep everyone on campus safer.
The victory was years in the making, driven by student activists and a coalition of organizations, including UTLA. Let’s give some love to Students Deserve, Black Lives Matter LA, Reclaim Our Schools LA, Local 99, Community Coalition, Inner-City Struggle, Labor Community Strategy Center, Brothers, Sons, Selves, and many other organizations.
Students were the heart and soul of this multi-year-long organizing effort. They rallied, they protested, they showed up at the school board in person and lately via Zoom, and they demanded that their stories be heard — their stories of being racially profiled, of feeling unsafe when seeing an armed officer on campus, of being pepper-sprayed while on the fringes of a school fight, of being arrested for a minor incident.
While a much larger ongoing investment is needed, the victory this week is a crucial first step toward mitigating years of disinvestment and ending the criminalization and over-policing of Black students and students of color in LAUSD. We know that when Black students win, we all win.
Shout-outs and Resources
I always like to give our members and community shoutouts and resources to use with students.
Have y’all seen the weekly Teachers of the Week named by the Los Angeles Chargers, and CBS2/KCAL9?
Each week they highlight one of our school district’s best. The past month they’ve called Alejandro Perez of Granada Elementary School, elementary school physical education teacher Felix Quinonez, dance teacher Rosleva Ochoa de Santos, and now the latest is Gillian Russom from Roosevelt High. We see you, getting recognized for the work you do day in and day out.
And we have to add that Alejandro is a UTLA Vice Chair at his school and Gillian is a former UTLA Board member and is now on the Area steering committee and the UTLA House of Reps. They are leading in so many ways.
Yesterday was the birthday of Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison, two dynamic Black women whose words continue to empower, inspire, and challenge our minds. They have been powerhouses for change and should be lifted up and heralded as heroines.
In their honor and in honor of Assata Shakur, another powerhouse for change, the national Black Lives Matter At School Network of Educators and Supporters is holding a An Unapologetically Black Tribute and Happy Hour next week. Sign up to share your tribute to Toni Morrison, Audre Lord, Assata Shakur, or to share what being unapologetically Black means to you. The tribute is next Friday, February 26, from 6 to 7:30 pm Eastern Standard Time. Look for info in the chat.
I am heartsick to share the news that two retired educators in our UTLA family have passed.
Susan Lee Coltrin, loving mother and grandmother, died of cancer December 5 at home in Pasadena. She was 80. Susan was a true product of LA: She was raised in Atwater and attended Irving Middle School and John Marshall High School. Summer jobs included selling tickets at the Merry-Go-Round in Griffith Park.
In her professional life, Susan taught history and government at Hollenbeck Junior High School and then Roosevelt High School, retiring in 2004. Her son
says that Susan simply loved being a teacher.
After retirement, the road trips started. Susan had an independent spirit and would drive solo up the California coast and across the country, to national parks, Civil War sites, and presidential museums. She often slept in the back of her camper shell-covered Toyota pickup truck until she was almost 80.
In retirement she also retained her love of teaching and giving back. She was a proud volunteer for many years at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park. She also volunteered at the Pasadena Playhouse, the Braille Institute, Meals on Wheels, the South Pasadena Public Library, the Huntington Library and the Pasadena Showcase House.
We have also lost Wallace Umber, a World War II veteran, who died at age 96 from COVID-19 complications.
Umber’s friends and family said he faced many adversities in his life and always rose above with patience, grace, and an even-keeled demeanor. Even during his final months living in social isolation at a retirement home, Umber would play his trumpet out of his window, bringing soulful music and joy to his fellow isolated residents.
Umber joined Venice High School in 1951 as Music Director. After seven years at Venice, he launched the music program at Emerson Junior High School, where he remained until his retirement in 1986. Wally was a charter member of UTLA, signing up when the 1970 strike was concluded. He was proud to be a part of the birth of UTLA and remained an involved member until his retirement.
Umber taught many young students who went on to have illustrious careers including Michael Jackson for a brief period of time and Gary Lewis of Gary Lewis & The Playboys.
In 1968, Umber founded a community band with the Venice High Community Adult School, which he brought to Santa Monica College in 1979 where it became the Emeritus Concert Band. Umber nurtured and directed the band for four decades until handing over leadership in 2008 at age 84.
To read more about the lives of these two educators, we will put links to longer obituaries in the chat. Rest in Peace, Susan and Wallace.
For those of you with friends and family in Texas and Oklahoma and other hard-hit areas, I hope they have been safe from the terrible fallout of the severe winter weather. The situation is improving, and we will keep folx in our thoughts who suffered through the cold without heat, running water, and power.
Now we head into our much-deserved weekend. Make the most of your Saturday and Sunday break. Carve out some time for true rest. We can’t be there in the fight if we haven’t refueled our spirit too.
Stay UTLA strong, friends. Be safe, hug your loved ones tighter. Because together, we rise.