West Contra Costa Unified's teachers union may call for strike over COVID safety

The West Contra Costa Unified's teachers union is calling on the district to address COVID safety concerns voiced by teachers, students and families during the tumultuous return from winter break.

United Teachers of Richmond conferred with district leadership early this week and offered a proposal on several key issues, said teachers union President Marissa Glidden. The parties met again Wednesday, and if there isn't an agreement by Friday, Glidden could call on union members for a strike authorization vote. 

A survey sent out to teachers last week indicated a majority are in favor of a strike if their demands aren't met.

Specifically, the union is calling for:

  • KN95 and N95 masks provided to all students and staff daily.
  • "Opt-out" instead of "opt-in" COVID testing, so more students and staff will get tested.
  • A plan for staff vacancies that ensures a qualified adult is available to fill in when a teacher is out of the classroom.
  • A formal procedure for what happens in the case of a class COVID outbreak

District officials, in a statement to Edsource this week, said they agree KN95 masks, robust contact tracing, support for schools to cover employee absences and vaccine clinics are "appropriate areas to direct our focus and resources as our district, like many across the state, is strained by the omicron surge."

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In a video released to families, Supt. Kenneth Hurst said: "When we learned that our cloth masks were insufficient, we were one of the first school districts in the state to distribute KN95 masks to staff. We also began providing surgical masks daily for our students, and soon will be providing our students with KN95 masks that we have already placed an order." 

The union's proposal follows actions by teachers and students over the past few weeks that highlighted safety concerns. West Contra Costa Unified, like other districts in the Bay Area, has seen large numbers of staff and student absences, as well as COVID cases, throughout the past few weeks. The district already had a staff shortage prior to the omicron surge and is relying on substitutes and administrative staff to fill in when teachers are absent.

Last week, the district announced it had ordered KN95 masks to be provided to all students each day.

 Some schools already received KN95 masks for students this week, district officials said. The district has also committed to providing staff with two KN95 masks per week. 

The district is also one of the few in the state to provide weekly testing for students and staff at each of its school sites, district officials said. The district is also "exploring raising the pay for substitute teachers," officials said.

Though the district has heard the feedback, Glidden said it has been slow to come up with a plan.

"It's been three weeks of this; we're grateful cases are going down, but working under these kinds of conditions each day is very taxing," Glidden said.

On Friday morning, PTA members at Harding Elementary School in El Cerrito were trying to get the word out about the teachers' union's demands. 

"We have a very privileged school here with ventilation and great teachers, and I think every school in the district should have the same access to air and a community that supports them – that our school has. And until that happens we have to advocate for the entire district," said PTA Vice President Maggie Whitaker as she was handing out flyers.  

Whitaker said she stands with the teachers and is urging other parents to support the cause. 

"I just really hope that the teachers get what they need, and I really hope that our community sees the value in the work that’s being done," said Whitaker. 

But other parents at Harding were unaware of the teachers' demands and felt the school was doing a great job protecting kids. 

"There hasn’t been huge outbreaks, my son has been healthy the entire time, his friends have been healthy, so I’m unaware of a major issue I guess," said parent Jim Lastoskie. 

District officials said they "remain committed to working together with our teachers, our staff and our community."

KTVU's Amanda Quintana contributed to this report.