This commentary was contributed by Hollister Elementary School Teachers Association President Angela Hagins. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors.
Seven and a half weeks. That is how much school will be left on the Hollister School District calendar on April 12, 2021 when we are to return in a hybrid schedule. According to the California legislature, a school district doesn’t have to negotiate with its bargaining units whether or when students will return to school. They only need to negotiate the aspects that affect the working conditions of those members. On March 23, 2021, the Hollister School District Board of Trustees directed Superintendent Diego Ochoa to return to the bargaining table to renegotiate the agreement the district had just signed with its teachers’ union that day. They asked the district to negotiate an increase to the number of instructional minutes and an increase to the number of students in the classroom for the last seven and a half weeks of school.
The Hollister Elementary School Teachers Association (you can call us HESTA) had a rough number of years when we were not very strong. Many of our more-experienced teachers with employment protections had to be released during the Great Recession. Recovery meant that our membership was made up mostly of probationary teachers who could be released without explanation at any time. Additionally, our leadership focused on what unions typically focus on—salary and working conditions, both of which were waning without a permanent stable base. However, five years ago, the Hollister School District hired a superintendent and other administrators who went too far. They didn’t just treat teachers badly. They treated our students badly and instituted policies that were harmful to their education. That is when we came together as a membership. We mobilized to get three student-centered board members elected. We filed grievance after grievance, calling these administrators on their behavior. We demonstrated in public places. And it worked. That superintendent and most of those administrators have moved on from our district. The board seems very focused on developing a positive and nurturing climate. The teachers’ union, your teachers, stepped up to protect our students then. We will step up to protect our students now.
Yes, the CDC has decreased the recommended spacing between students from six feet to three feet. They are very smart people who know their stuff. However, schools are built on schedules. If a COVID-19 mutation causes the CDC to rescind its three-foot recommendation, that will cause complete chaos to our hybrid instruction. 5,600 students will have to be given new schedules. Parents will have to adjust their home schedules once again. Additionally, anybody who has been following the UK variant will have read that cases in Europe are on the rise. Their number of deaths are on the rise. Countries that kept their schools open for the past year are now having to close them because that particular virus spreads faster in children nine-years-old and younger. No, HESTA will not subject our students to that risk. We recognize that this virus has impacted different families differently. It is fantastic if you know of nobody who has been negatively affected. Unfortunately, the family and friends of 61 people in our county don’t get to share your blessings. HESTA intends to do what it can to be sure that number stays as low as possible. After all, grief causes greater learning loss than even inconsistent instructional schedules.
Yes, it would be more equitable to teach in-person and distance learning classes three hours each. We have been uncomfortable with the minutes since they were introduced to us. Yes, we are contracted to a 30-minute lunch each day. That would leave just under one hour a day to review and record student work, contact parents, prepare the next day’s lessons, plan the next week’s lessons, and complete any referrals for counseling or student study teams. That is assuming there are no other interruptions or meetings, which are obviously a near-daily occurrence. We already expect to work longer than the hours we are paid. Most of this year, many of us have been working 10 or more hours a day, going through similar challenges that other families have. Right now, we share the pain and struggle our students bring with them. It has gotten harder to wake up in the morning and paint on the smile for the kids, but we do it because they depend on us. We are not asking for sympathy or help. We are asking for the adults involved in the conversation to be reasonable. We are not automatons. We are not schoolteachers of old who were required to remain single and live at the schoolhouse. We need a job that allows us to have something left over for our students the next day as well as for our families that night. That proposed schedule would not allow that to happen. We as a union cannot allow our employers to deplete us that much. If we do, who will teach the children?
So, please understand that when the Hollister Elementary School Teachers Association refused to return to the bargaining table to create a more equitable schedule, we did not decide to refuse lightly. The one commonality that all 300 of us have is that we are willing to stand up for our students. If we allow the Hollister School District not to honor its agreement, we relinquish the power we have to protect the children. That is a power we are not willing to give up.