School districts and cities are setting up community wifi networks, which would provide people with free or low-cost internet connection in an effort to bridge the digital divide. (Photo by Paul Chinn/San Francisco Chronicle/Polaris via EdSource)

At Gov. Gavin Newsom’s urging, school labor and management groups agreed Wednesday on principles to guide them as they switch to distance learning and continue providing meals for students in the months ahead.

The three-page “framework for labor-management collaboration” is not a mandate. By itself it won’t resolve acrimonious disputes over employee expectations, safety issues, hours and benefits that have slowed progress in distance learning in districts like Yuba City Unified and Sacramento City Unified. However, the document’s preface says, it could “spur collaboration” so that districts can get on with confronting the havoc created by the coronavirus.

“All districts and exclusive representatives should work together to find the best path for the students, the staff and communities,” it states.

Signers include the major associations representing school administrators, school boards and business administrators, and unions representing teachers and support staff of hourly employees (see agreement for the full list),

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond led the talks over the past month, together with Ben Chida, Newsom’s chief deputy cabinet secretary. The talks were difficult, and at one point came close to breaking down, according to some close to the discussions.

Meanwhile, on their own, many districts reached either formal agreements or informal understandings on how to deal with safety threats and education challenges from the coronavirus that weren’t covered under existing contracts. These include work expectations for distance learning, and issues like supplying protective equipment for school maintenance and paying for internet access for teachers who lack it.

Other districts, particularly small and rural districts, have adopted distance learning plans that assume all teachers will follow them, said Wesley Smith, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators.

“While not legally binding, the spirit of cooperation in the document could help move things along between districts and their labor partners,” said Smith.

Reaching a deal was important for Newsom and Thurmond. Both said this week that districts should plan on schools not reopening this academic year and instead turn full attention to creating quality online instruction for all students. The agreement implies that negotiations shouldn’t hold up the need to provide “essential service to the public” — whether instruction or meal delivery — “to the extent practicable” while also maintaining employee safety.

Parents who have been waiting for the state to issue uniform requirements for what distance learning should look like won’t find that in the document. It’s unclear whether the California Department of Education plans to issue guidance on issues such as how long an online school day should be, whether the content offered should be enrichment or completion of courses students had already started, or whether teachers should set aside daily time for student and parent meetings.

Unions and management groups appear to have made concessions, although there are gray areas in the agreement’s  language.

  • Teachers and classified staff “may need to perform functions that are reasonably similar” to what they have been expected to do before the coronavirus crisis. Districts could argue, for example, that  virtual instruction is another form of teaching, and all teachers must adapt to it, and for custodians that disinfecting schools is consistent with their previous duties.
  • Time off as a result of coronavirus-related health complications should not count toward an employee’s medical leave.
  • Districts should offer to pay for child care so that teachers and support staff don’t have to take personal leaves.
  • Districts should consult with unions to determine staff assignments, health issues and workloads. While districts have the authority to determine curriculum, unions argue distance learning affects working conditions and time commitments that are negotiable.

Bargaining and collaboration are critical, California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd said in a statement. “The districts and schools that are working most effectively are those in which teachers were part of the discussions and involved in the distance learning planning every step of the way.”

There have been wide variations in the districts’ distance learning plans and in requirements of teachers and staff. For example, most districts are not paying teachers and hourly workers more beyond their standard pay, which Newsom guaranteed will be paid under an executive order last month. However, some districts are paying kitchen help and custodians time-and-a-half for hours performed at school.

Some districts are requiring a week of teacher training in distance learning; others are requiring a day or letting teachers determine how much training they wish to participate in. Some are providing four to six hours of virtual instruction per day, while others have set a limit of half that much.

The framework issued Wednesday won’t alter past agreements and will leave it up to local districts to interpret the language moving ahead. Smith predicts unions and management groups may read the document differently.  “It will depend on who’s reading it and how they are using it, because the decisions will be local,” ACSA’s Smith said.

Story originally published by EdSource.

John Fensterwald