"After years of being given two tissue boxes a year, dealing with rat infestations, and using dirty bathrooms, we do not trust that the district has the commitment or resources to make us safe at school."
- Nicolle Fefferman
In the Voices From The Community series, representatives of constituencies throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) express their concerns about the district and detail how they would like to move forward. The first three articles (here, here, and here) detailed the effects of charter schools on neighborhood public schools. In this latest installment, Nicolle Fefferman writes about her concerns as some special interest groups blame teachers for the fact that students have not returned to physical classrooms.
Fefferman is an LAUSD teacher who helped co-found the Parents Supporting Teachers (Padres Apoyando a Maestros) Facebook page. PST was founded just prior to the strike by LAUSD parents in January 2019. As parents rallied behind their teachers' demands for improved learning conditions, the membership organically swelled to over 25,000 parents, teachers, and other supporters of public education. It is one of the largest online hubs in Los Angeles where parents and educators share important information on how to navigate both the district and local schools. By sharing hurdles and successes, PST is a landing place for those families looking for concrete solutions to support their children and public education.
As a teacher in the district, I have experienced and seen students, teachers, and families, trying to provide the best possible educational outcomes in our underfunded and under-resourced schools. For years our district has failed at providing everything necessary for a safe and clean educational experience. Teachers and families have dug deep into their own pockets to buy soap, cleaning supplies, tissues, bandages, and other materials needed for the classroom materials.
We have tried our best to help keep our campuses and classrooms clean when our custodial staff was overwhelmed after years of budget cuts. At the depths of the funding crisis, some campuses were left with only one custodian. With cleaning crews cut to the bone, students are left spending precious instructional time trying to find open and clean bathrooms. These types of conditions cannot exist when students physically return to school if we are to keep them safe.
The district elimination of 1,100 maintenance jobs between 2007 and 2014 causes additional concern. Before school campuses were closed, many teachers were forced to struggle with broken classroom HVACs resulting in challenging conditions both physically and mentally. During the pandemic, these same units are expected to recirculate filtered air to prevent infection. Is the district better equipped to fix breakdowns of these units than they were before the shutdown?
These conditions in our schools are what pushed us teachers along with counselors, librarians, and nurses, to go on strike two years ago. With the overwhelming support of parents, we demanded smaller class sizes, full-time nurses at every school, and less testing. These demands spoke to the long historical arc of sensible basic quality of life needs lacking in our urban communities. Teachers were in awe and inspired when Los Angeles families stood with us in the rain and kept their students out of school in solidarity with our demands. The first UTLA strike in thirty years was successful because what we were telling the world accurately reflected the lived experiences and frustrations of our students and their families.
The conditions today within our schools did not start with our current district leadership. They are the result of decades of failed policy and negligent political leadership. The pro-privatization impulses and policies of the current school board majority (elected with the help of the charter school industry) have only made it worse.
As the post-Christmas COVID-19 surge subsides, teachers, counselors, librarians, and nurses, are being asked to return to school after a year of uncertainty and trauma. I am grateful that our Superintendent has joined us in calling for vaccinations, lowered community transmission rates, and the appropriate safety resources, as conditions for a safe return. However, there is a terrible distrust of the district as a result of our experiences in LAUSD schools. After years of being allocated two tissue boxes a year, dealing with rat infestations, and using dirty bathrooms, we do not trust that the district has the commitment or resources to make us safe at school.
In order to make teachers feel more safe and comfortable as we transition back to in-person learning, we need an acknowledgment of past harm done to our campuses and communities followed by transparency in district decisions regarding resources and personnel. We need our School Board and Superintendent to have the courage to step out and engage in a form of restorative justice. This requires them to take actions that demonstrate leadership and transparency.
The LAUSD must give an "A" level performance for preparation so that students and staff can physically return to schools safely. Given that we would have graded past performance with an "F," many teachers are skeptical that the district has done everything according to protocol. LAUSD officials simply saying, "We're good to open" is not enough, we need specifics. Tell us what happens when we run out of supplies and how long will we wait for new shipments. Make it clear what has been done to ensure that each classroom has adequate HVAC coverage. Detail the concrete plans for hiring the number of nurses that are still needed in our schools.
I will say the same thing to the district as I do to my students, "Where is the evidence to support your thinking?" Providing these answers will go far in rebuilding trust between the district and teachers, staff, families, and students.
Politicians keep on telling teachers that we need to return to the classroom. To convince me that this is, in fact, the best thing for my students and me, they need to step up and provide reassurances that they will follow the science-based guidelines. I want an expert not beholden to the district to verify that our plan is good and that we have what we need to stay safe. If I have to buy masks in bulk at Costco for my students, then we are not ready to return to school.
Carl Petersen is a parent, an advocate for students with special education needs, an elected member of the Northridge East Neighborhood Council, a member of the LAUSD's CAC, and was a Green Party candidate in LAUSD's District 2 School Board race. During the campaign, the Network for Public Education (NPE) Action endorsed him, and Dr. Diane Ravitch called him a "strong supporter of public schools." For links to his blogs, please visit www.ChangeTheLAUSD.com. Opinions are his own.