Vulnerable teachers are being dragged from the safety of online teaching. (Illustration by Junanna Chen)

Opinion

Editorial: HBUHSD must allow teachers to stay online, create a fully-virtual cohort

The Baron Banner’s editorial board count: All 11 editors unanimously disapprove of HBUHSD’s decision to require teachers to return to campus to teach in person. Huntington Beach Union High School District leaders gave remote teachers a tone-deaf ultimatum on Friday: return to campus on January 5 to teach in person or take a leave of absence, even…
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/karenphn/" target="_self">Karen Phan</a>

Karen Phan

December 11, 2020

The Baron Banner’s editorial board count: All 11 editors unanimously disapprove of HBUHSD’s decision to require teachers to return to campus to teach in person.

Huntington Beach Union High School District leaders gave remote teachers a tone-deaf ultimatum on Friday: return to campus on January 5 to teach in person or take a leave of absence, even in the face of surging COVID-19 cases and a new shortage of hospital beds.

The district initially gave teachers a choice to teach hybrid or online, a commendable decision and one that not all school districts have made for their teachers (although it should be noted that HBUHSD classified office staff were never given the option to work virtually like teachers).

Now, however, the district has changed its mind and is telling all teachers to return to campus, saying that the expiration of federal relief measures means they no longer have the flexibility to let teachers work from home.

Teachers shouldn’t have to choose their jobs over their lives. Teachers shouldn’t be pressured to endanger themselves and their families. Yet HBUHSD is asking teachers to do exactly that.

While the district has put safety measures in place on campuses, such as by creating one-way hallways and installing handwashing stations, and has purchased large quantities of protective equipment for staff, testing for COVID-19 is not mandatory. The district has left testing optional, a loose measure that is neither broad nor frequent enough to guarantee the safety of students or the teachers HBUHSD is asking to return to campus.

If HBUHSD is going to require their teachers to return to campus, they should at least commit to frequent and mandatory testing to quickly detect and isolate infections and perform contact tracing to prevent further spread.

Meanwhile, Orange County regressed to the Purple Tier two weeks ago, and Southern California’s ICU capacities dropped below the 15% threshold set by the state as of Saturday. The Southern California region, including Orange County, is now under a stay-at-home order that went into effect yesterday.

HBUHSD’s COVID-19 dashboard shows an increase in cases at all schools within the district — a total of 38 cases on Dec. 4 and nine cases at the time of publication. It’s also possible, and likely, that some positive students do not know or report to their school nurses, meaning there could be cases we don’t know of.

It is undeniable that at school, teachers are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 than if they stay home — a risk some of them cannot afford to take.

Many teachers who chose to teach remotely live with vulnerable family members, such as their parents or infant children, or are immunocompromised themselves. And while requiring teachers to return to campus jeopardizes their health and that of their families, the alternative — asking them to take sick leave — jeopardizes the quality of education for students.

Teachers who are unable to return to school and instead decide to use a leave of absence will have unqualified substitutes take their place as instructors. With an already compromised curriculum this year, having unqualified instructors replace credentialed virtual teachers doesn’t help anyone, especially students in specific elective and Advanced Placement classes.

HBUHSD’s decision to bring teachers back to campus is even more frustrating because rather than being an unavoidable consequence of unforeseeable events, it is the result of entirely avoidable blunders in the district’s rollout of its reopening plan — a rollout that for months has been characterized by unilateralism, shortsightedness, and an extraordinary lack of transparency.

After having months to prepare, HBUHSD still managed to blindside its community in August with a reopening plan that was not approved by teachers, according to the HBUHSD District Educators Association, and which required families to decide in only one week whether they wanted to enroll their students in a hybrid or virtual instructional model for the entire semester.

Not only did HBUHSD ask families to make what they thought would be a semester-long commitment with little time or information, but only after the deadline to choose an instructional model passed did HBUHSD update its plan with information that revealed that the true plan would be starkly different from the one they had originally communicated to parents.

Many community members and teachers alike were initially under the impression that a virtual academy would be set up separately from in-person instruction, an understanding that arose from the reopening plan’s description that students who chose the online model might not be taught by teachers from their home school. Instead, the district ended up doing a mixed model and putting all hybrid and online students together in the same class over vocal objections from teachers and parents who learned of this change only after HBUHSD DEA took to social media to criticize it.

This mixed model is the worst part of HBUHSD’s reopening plan and is the reason why we are in this situation now.

Some have said that HBUHSD is asking remote teachers to return to school because of the unsustainable cost of hiring substitutes to supervise every remote teacher’s classroom. The money would not be an issue if the district had created a separate virtual cohort, as families expected and asked for.

Not only did the district proceed with a reopening plan that was misleadingly and insufficiently communicated to their community from the start, and that community members strongly criticized when they found out about it, but it is now failing to own up to the consequences of that plan.

The sensible solution that also addresses a possible lack of funding is to return to virtual learning until Orange County is out of the Purple Tier and case counts stay low and to create a separate virtual cohort by the time campuses reopen for in-person instruction.

By creating a virtual academy, online teachers will be with online students, and hybrid teachers will be with hybrid students. Teachers can give their full attention to one group of students. There would also be no need to pay substitute teachers every day, and students would get the education we signed up for.

Hybrid students, for example, are not getting the education they expected in this mixed model. HBUHSD’s COVID-19 dashboard shows a decrease in in-person enrollment, which could be due to how COVID-19 is spreading on campuses and how in-person instruction is too underwhelming for hybrid students to continue attending.

Hybrid students have remote teachers and remote classmates and are sitting in classrooms by themselves with substitutes who don’t know how to teach the class. Even if all teachers come to teach in-person, that doesn’t mean the quality of education for either hybrid or online students will improve. Teachers still have their attention divided between two groups of students at the same time.

Forcing teachers to return to campus does little to benefit students at large and potentially puts vulnerable teachers in danger. We hope HBUHSD will have empathy for their teachers by allowing remote teachers to continue to teach online and separating online and hybrid students and teachers for the second semester.

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