Schools within the Mount Diablo Unified School District will remain empty for the time being as district officials continue working out how to reopen them safely. (Photo via Endri Killo/Unsplash)

Negotiations remain unresolved with employee unions over when and how to reopen schools in the Mount Diablo Unified School District, which has had more than 1,000 students leave the district since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the district’s superintendent told the school board at a meeting Wednesday night.

MDUSD Superintendent Adam Clark told the district’s Board of Education that the negotiations with labor partners like the Mt. Diablo Education Association teachers’ union are “still distances away from coming to an agreement” and said layoffs and even school closures could be on the table as a result of the drop in enrollment numbers since last year.

“That’s the harsh reality of public education, we staff in terms of enrollment,” Clark said. “This is all of our district, and we all have to come together to find different ways that we can serve our students.”

Clark said the district will send out a survey later this week or early next week to get input from students and their families about reopening plans as negotiations continue with the labor groups. The superintendent said in a letter to the district community last week that eight of the 18 school districts in Contra Costa County have signed agreements with their labor partners and are preparing to bring students back on campus in the coming weeks.

Dozens of people spoke in the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting and dozens more emailed in comments, with many parents saying their students are struggling with distance learning and noting that the district is disproportionately behind in its progress to reopen compared to other nearby school districts.

“Our students deserve the opportunity to be with their peers and teachers in person,” said Kristen Burkhardt, who said she’s a parent and teacher in the district who is currently on leave from teaching to help her own children during the pandemic.

But some teachers in comments and emails sent to the board expressed concerns about safely reopening amid the pandemic, with vaccines not yet available for teachers, and said the district has not provided a clear plan for educators and staff.

Clark said there is not a “one size fits all” plan since the district, which includes schools in Concord, Pleasant Hill, Bay Point and parts of Walnut Creek, Martinez and Pittsburg, has campuses with different needs and demographics, and that the results of the survey will help staff at each campus formulate a plan for reopening.

School board president Cherise Khaund said, “We do need to get to the point where those can get designed” at individual campuses and said athletic conditioning activities have been allowed at all school sites throughout the pandemic so the district has shown that small group activities can be done safely on campuses.

Board trustee Linda Mayo said she was “hopeful for reopening before the end of the school year” in early June, but fellow trustee Keisha Nzewi said she worried that moving too quickly to bring students, teachers and staff back to campuses in large numbers could be the equivalent of “spiking the ball on the one-yard-line” with vaccines starting to be made available to certain sections of the public but not yet to educators.

Nzewi said many teachers are ready to return to class, but many are not, and said she has “a moral obligation not to lose one life … for someone who didn’t want to take that risk.”

Clark had said in January that distance learning in the district would continue at least into March, and did not commit at Wednesday’s meeting to any timeline for when schools may reopen.

“I just don’t think with the time that it has taken for us to get this far … I’m concerned about being able in the next few weeks to reach all of the agreements that need to be reached,” Clark said.

Dan McMenamin is the managing editor at Bay City News, directing daily news coverage of the 12-county greater Bay Area. He has worked for BCN since 2008 and has been managing editor since 2014 after previously serving as BCN’s San Francisco bureau reporter. A UC Davis graduate, he came to BCN after working for a newspaper and nonprofit in the Davis area. He handles staffing, including coaching of our interns, day-to-day coverage decisions and management of the newswire.