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Turlock teachers nervous as first day approaches
While there’s been plenty of conversation about what it will look like when students can safely return to school, teachers in Turlock are anxiously awaiting their campus homecoming in less than two weeks.

A survey conducted by the Turlock Teachers Association on Tuesday evening during a virtual town hall event asked nearly 200 instructors to share how they’re feeling about Turlock Unified School District’s plan to reopen campuses with a Distance Learning Model on Aug. 12. The results varied, but several emotions made up a majority of responses: stressed, overwhelmed, unprepared and anxious. Some feel out-of-the-loop and frustrated, while others are experiencing a sense of disappointment and confusion. Still, the word “excited” was used as well.

“Turlock educators miss our students and are eager to begin doing what we do best — meet the educational needs of our students while also providing for their social and emotional needs,” TTA President Christine Rowell said.

However, TTA members feel that their perspectives and input during the coronavirus pandemic are not being valued by TUSD or its Board of Trustees. According to Rowell, TUSD has consistently disregarded recommendations of professional classroom practitioners in a number of areas, including the amount of time students will spend in front of a screen, access to meaningful and collaborative professional development for distance learning and professional flexibility for work location and hours, to name a few.

Under the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Turlock Teachers Association and Turlock Unified School District last week, employees are expected to work from their regular on-site work stations or classrooms in order to provide instructions to students who are at home distance learning at the beginning of the school year.

This is a worry for educators, Rowell said, who have to think about not only themselves, but their colleagues and families at home.

“We worry about the ability of our district to maintain safe conditions in our working environment,” Rowell said. “If distance learning is the only safe option right now, then distance teaching is the only safe option.”

Some teachers have been working with TUSD through the interactive process to identify employees most at-risk for COVID-19 who would be able to work effectively from home. In addition, the district has also agreed to provide child care or the option to work from home for parents with children up to sixth grade. TTA believes that all teachers should have the personal choice, the age of their children or medical conditions aside.

Pitman High School science teacher Laura Hollister and her husband Ryan Hollister, TUSD’s Science Coach, chose to look at the requirement to work on campus from a scientific perspective.

“The scientific evidence is clear that requiring teachers to work from school sites at the current rate of COVID-19 infection fails to follow the ‘Precautionary Principle.’ It needlessly risks the health and safety of our community when the job of virtual teaching can be done equally well at home,” they said in a joint statement to the Journal. “Our hope would be that TUSD does its part to reduce the community transmission of the virus by keeping campuses closed to most personnel until our county dips below the threshold of 8 percent positivity for 14 days. We are eager to return to campus and see our students and colleagues in-person once our community meets the state’s standards.”

According to letter sent to all TUSD staff on Wednesday by Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Barney Gordon, the district has worked tirelessly over the last five months to prepare campuses for the return of teachers. All air conditioning systems throughout TUSD will have been cleaned by Aug. 12, with new, high-quality Tri-dek 15/40 filters installed. Gordon also clarified that there is no air exchange between classrooms at any TUSD school site.

Additional efforts are continuing when it comes to Personal Protective Equipment and sanitation, including the distributions of cleaning and disinfecting supplies, installation of hand sanitizer pumps in each room and installation of sneeze guards. Disposable facemasks, re-usable facemasks, gloves, face shields, portable sneeze guards and more will be delivered to school sites next week, while high-touch surfaces will be cleaned and sanitized several times per day.

“The date of opening was never in question, but what the opening would look like has been a moving target that just recently came into focus; I am very proud and thankful for the dedication of so many folks,” Gordon said. “We will continue to work to knock down any barriers to success in the education of our students during this global pandemic.”

In addition to their safety, Rowell said that teachers are most concerned about being prepared.

“Turlock teachers see neighboring districts preparing their teachers with mindful and meaningful professional development and time for collaboration. TUSD is providing Turlock educators with only six paid hours for professional development or collaboration prior to the start of what will be a challenging year,” she said.

According to Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Heidi Lawler, TUSD has provided numerous opportunities for professional development not only during the spring and summer of this year, but in multiple venues every school year. Ongoing professional development days, workshops and conferences throughout each year provide technology training for traditional learning models, she said, but most recently have shifted their focus to distance learning.

Lawler said that additional support and training was provided when school was suspended in March, but teachers are still gaining the needed skills and confidence to traverse this entirely new approach to education. On Aug. 11, TUSD’s Professional Development day will give teachers the opportunity to choose from a menu of options, including training on the recently purchased fully-licensed Zoom platform which has additional features to allow more flexibility with classroom instruction.

“While proficiency in technology is crucial to successful distance learning, there are many other aspects of the educational experience that may be challenging during distance learning. Teachers developed new strategies throughout the spring to connect with students and build on positive relationships to ensure consistent engagement in learning and social emotional development. These strategies will be essential as we begin the new school year,” Lawler said. “TUSD is confident that teachers will utilize the tools, through technology and revised instructional strategies, to meet the needs of our students and they will continue to have any support necessary from their Professional Learning Communities, site administrators, Educational Services Team, and TUSD support services and staff.”

In addition to the training planned for Aug. 11, TUSD Coordinator of Technology Marshall Beyer is hosting a virtual professional development course called “Preparing for Distance Learning,” which will cover topics like Google Classroom, Zoom and other technologies.

The third and final concern of teachers, Rowell said, is whether or not all students will have equitable access to technology or materials, and how teachers will connect with their students if they don’t — or if their own technology in the classroom isn’t up to par.

TUSD has dedicated substantial resources to technology over the past seven years and reached full 1:1 implementation of its Chromebook program last fall. TUSD is also in the process of deploying 500 new desktop computers in classrooms throughout the district and adding a new 24-inch monitor with a built-in web cam, microphone and speakers to each classroom.

“This, combined with the document camera that each classroom should have, will provide a very robust configuration for providing distance learning,” Gordon said.

The district has also purchased Zoom licenses for teachers as well as a district-wide license of Screencastify for video creation, editing and sharing. As far as student connectivity goes, site staff is currently verifying with families identified in the spring as needing internet access, as well as any others that may have been identified over the summer. TUSD continues to identify students who need internet access via surveys, phone calls and social media, and is working with companies to provide them with a free connection.

In addition, families on free and reduced lunch are being assisted by receiving internet services for as low as $10 per month, and TUSD also has 700 Wi-Fi hotspots ready to be deployed.

Despite their concerns about returning to school, Rowell reiterated that educators are ecstatic to interact with students once more, albeit from a distance. Now more than ever, she said, teachers can feel the support of Turlock.

“Our Turlock community has been very supportive. Parents create strong relationships with their children’s teachers,” Rowell said. “In the past we have seen support in the form of donations of classroom supplies, or the willingness to volunteer for classroom projects. Now we see it in their support for student and teacher safety. Parents, like teachers, are struggling to find the balance between a sense of normalcy and the very real potential for the loss of health or life.”