Sacramento City Unified locks in distance learning plan. Union says teachers won’t follow it

The Sacramento City Unified School District adopted a distance learning plan Saturday after starting the school year two days before without one. The teachers union says its teachers will not follow the plan.

The two groups have been working for weeks to determine how much time teachers will spend in direct instruction via video conference calls and how much time students will be asked to learn asynchronously, or independently.

» EDITORIAL: Sacramento kids returned to school with no deal. What we can do to fix this now.

The district decided to move forward without an agreement with the union. The plan is the same originally set forth less than a week ago on Aug. 30

The district is calling for more time spent in synchronous instruction and less time doing independent work. Although both plans meet state education requirements, SCTA’s relies more on independent study in favor of face-to-face screen time.

District leadership has said students thrive with more direct instruction. Sacramento City Teachers Association President David Fisher said teachers need greater flexibility to make decisions each day during class time.

“We teach our students to the best of our abilities,” Fisher said after the plan was announced in a 2:45 a.m. news release.

The disagreement included hours of mediated negotiations and those failed to produce a compromise.

This table shows the hours of face-to-face instructional time for students in the district versus independent, asynchronous study as proposed in plans from both the Sac City Unified School District, left, and the Sacramento City Teachers Association.
This table shows the hours of face-to-face instructional time for students in the district versus independent, asynchronous study as proposed in plans from both the Sac City Unified School District, left, and the Sacramento City Teachers Association.

SCUSD Superintendent Jorge Aguilar said during a phone call with The Sacramento Bee that he had not received any formal communications from the union regarding plans for Tuesday.

He did say, however, that the same processes are in place during distance learning that are in place during a regular school year to ensure that all guidelines are followed. School principles and other support staff are regularly making contact with teachers and ensuring that standards are met.

Aguilar acknowledged that the past few days have felt chaotic as school leaders and teachers attempted to come to a last-minute deal.

“It felt chaotic, it felt unorganized,” Aguilar said. “That is actually our goal: to make sure things are not chaotic.”

After the scramble in spring to switch to online learning — “crisis learning,” Aguilar called it — district officials knew big changes would have to be made to better meet students’ needs.

To understand how best to accomplish that, the district conducted a survey, and received responses from the families of more than 20,000 students.

Of those, nearly half said their top priority for distance learning was live instruction. Just 10% said recorded instruction sessions were their top priority, the next most popular response.

Aguilar, a parent of students in the district, said the agreed-upon hour of live instruction on the first two days of class “is not sufficient.”

“The educational rights our students had during our regular session are the same as right now,” he said. “We also have to set up some guard rails so that the teaching that’s taking place is meeting the needs of the students.”

Routine or flexibility?

“We need to have the flexibility to reach every student,” Ingrid Hutchins, a second-grade teacher at Golden Empire Elementary School, said. “We’re sticking to our proposal on this.”

Preston Jackson, a teacher at California Middle School and the board president of Washington Unified School District in West Sacramento, said SCUSD’s plan is restrictive.

He said his daughter, in her first kindergarten classes, “was ready to quit school after three days” of long videoconferencing sessions.

In Washington Unified, for example, teachers can transition to asynchronous learning if they sense burnout in their students, he said.

“We’re not being allowed to use our professional judgment as educators,” Jackson said, adding it’s like being told “you’re not good enough to make that decision.”

Zachary Bryant, a Spanish teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, compared SCUSD’s plan to a doctor’s office that treats every patients with bandages — even those with stomachaches.

“Tuesday morning, I’m going to start and teach the way I’ve always taught,” he said.

Jackson pointed out that the district’s stringent video lesson plan “comes from a very elitist position” that assumes all students have reliable, fast wireless internet.

“We know for a fact that is not the case,” he said.

In Washington Unified, as in Sac City Unified and others, students with need are supplied with computers and other technology for distance learning. But, Jackson said, Washington Unified provides centers with internet service for students to visit while doing schoolwork. Sac City has offered qualifying students six months of Comcast service and has internet hotspots available on request.

Aguilar said schools must adopt the district’s plan, as they have already gone too long without a set course for the school year, including starting school Thursday without the plan.

“We have little choice but to move forward without an agreement and are committed to providing our community with what they have been asking for: quality instruction, effective communication and accountability to ensure we meet our students’ academic, social and emotional needs,” Aguilar said in the news release.

“We want to be clear: while we were unable to reach an agreement with SCTA, our decision today is not a judgment of our incredible teachers. However, our families and our educators have been kept in limbo far too long and need to know what distance learning will look like for their students, and their classes,” he wrote.

“Thankfully, our district, including our principals, staff and teachers are ready and well-equipped to serve the needs of all our students through the district’s distance learning plan,” he wrote.

Aguilar also sent a letter to Fisher, the union president, expressing “deep disappointment” over the failure to reach an agreement and informing him of the new coronavirus distance learning plan, which is identical to the previous plan proposed and negotiated over.

Other areas of disagreement, as outlined in the letter, included the frequency of districtwide student assessments. SCTA had argued for fewer assessments, which Aguilar rejected in the letter.

“We know our students and families have been waiting anxiously for learning to resume,” the district’s Board of Education said in a prepared statement. “Our community told us loud and clear this summer a distance learning plan needed clarity and consistency, equity for all kids no matter their ZIP code, interactive time with teachers and accountability that their children are getting their needs met.

“The board is committed to meeting these needs and providing the certainty and high-quality education our students deserve in this unprecedented time.”

‘Caught in the middle’

Alina Cervantes, a parent of two children at Phoebe Hearst Elementary School who is also a professor of early childhood education at American River College, said she just would have preferred a plan going in.

“Ultimately, the reason I think so many parents are upset is because our kids are caught in the middle and our kids pay the price of the dysfunction of our district and our current union politics,” Cervantes said.

She thought the crisis of coronavirus would bring people together to work harder for children, who are already under pressure given the circumstances, but “it only seemed to exacerbate and make worse the toxicity.”

During spring, the process in the district seemed to differ between teachers and between schools, she said. Some seemed to receive a lot of face-to-face instruction, others didn’t get much at all.

Coming from a family with two working parents meant the live instruction time Cervantes’ children got was “the only thing that saved our life during spring.” But now, all bets are off.

“I’m incredibly frustrated and incredibly confused,” she said, unable to understand why district and union officials couldn’t just split the difference between their plans and enter the school year with a more complete roadmap of the days ahead.

“It’s been really, really difficult to stay positive in this district,” Cervantes said. “We’re just gonna cross our fingers.”

Union officials said their plan was drafted with studies from the American Academy of Pediatrics regarding the potentially harmful effects of extended periods of screen time, plus input from hundreds of educators across the district. District officials have argued that SCTA is misapplying the AAP studies.

Classes for the district’s 42,000 students resumes on Tuesday.

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