NEWMAN - Students in the Newman-Crows Landing Unified School District will be learning from home when a new school year begins Aug. 11, but their teachers will be returning to the classroom to conduct the virtual instruction.

The expectation that teachers and support staff work from campus was a point of discussion during a special school board meeting last week, during which Trustee RoseLee Hurst voiced strong objection to requiring employees to return to campus.

Other board members who spoke to the issue during the meeting, however, were supportive of the district’s decision to have teachers work from their classroom. Superintendent Randy Fillpot said that a number of safety protocols are being implemented in preparation for the return of employees to campus.

But Hurst expressed concern that requiring teachers and other staff members to return to campus may expose them to potential coronavirus infection from others who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic.

“Teachers should have a choice of being in the classroom or at home,” she emphasized. “I have a big problem with making them come into school.”

One of her concerns, Hurst shared, is whether there is potential for virus to be circulated through air conditioning systems.

Hurst said she had read numerous comments in a Thought Exchange survey from those worried about returning to campus - and received emails from supportive staff members after voicing her concerns at last week’s special meeting.

Hurst questioned how much input teachers had had on the topic and stated that “if I was still teaching and you gave me that ultimatum I would probably quit teaching.”

But fellow board member Tim Bazar said he believes instruction from the classroom is important as the district moves forward.

“I think the community needs to see education as an essential activity. We need to convince the public that we are providing a good educational experience for these kids. I think that the fact teachers are in the classroom is a step in that direction,” Bazar commented. “We need to make sure that we provide a safe place for our teachers and staff to operate out of. As soon as possible we need to get the kids back there, too. The more it looks like what we did before the better, in my opinion.”

Board member Vern Snodderly concurred, saying that teachers concerned about returning to the classroom should work with their administrators to see if a resolution can be reached.

Fillpot emphasized that staff members who require special accommodations can work with the human resources department.

“If there are legitimate reasons why an employee cannot be present because of underlying health issues they can go through the process with our human resources department to determine an alternative,” he told the board.

Following the meeting two other board members shared their thoughts on having staff on campus.

Janice Conforti, board president, acknowledged the concerns raised by Hurst but told Mattos Newspapers that she would like to see teachers work from the classroom.

“They are essential. We have to be able to have our children learn. If you are at home it is more difficult, especially if you have your own children at home trying to learn while you are teaching,” Conforti said. “We really are going to be safe. I think the classroom may be one of the safest places to be. They will be cleaned, and it will only be the teacher.”

Board member Paul Wallace also emphasized the importance of staff safety. Wallace said he believes the administration has put procedures in place to address safety concerns.

“They are going to be pretty much by themselves in a room that is being cleaned,” Wallace commented. “I feel you can work safely in that environment.”

But, Wallace cautioned, “I think it is something that we have to keep an eye on and watch. I really think that things are going to change, and we are going to have to adapt to them.”

Fillpot said the decision to bring teachers back to the classroom was based on a number of factors.

“The teachers will have more access to more technology in their own classroom. We know that we have an internet system that works in the district. We have technical assistance in the district. All the resources they normally use are there in the classrooms,” Fillpot explained. “We consider all of our employees to be essential workers. We need them back on site.”

In the spring, he noted, “there were some (teachers), but not a lot, who did not perform well in their home and would have done better in a classroom.”

Fillpot said a number of safety protocols are being implemented, including requirements for social distancing, daily health checks which include temperature monitoring, rigorous campus cleaning and the provision of sanitizers, facial coverings and other protective equipment.

Fillpot said that, of the district’s 377 employees, fewer than 20 expressed safety-related concerns about returning to the workplace.

Hardy Reeves, president of the Newman-Crows Landing Teachers Association, said the union had heard from a small number of members who were concerned about returning to the classroom.

“We have only had a handful of teachers reach out to us saying they are concerned. The ones who were reaching out did so with some very legitimate concerns. The district and administration have been listening to those concerns,” Reeves commented.

People from all walks of life are understandably nervous about returning to the workplace, he added.

Reeves said, though, that it appears that the district is “working hard toward making sure it is a safe environment.”

Another concern, he said, is that the rights of teachers are not affected by changes in working conditions during the pandemic.

Hurst raised the prospect of unfair burdens being placed on teachers by requiring them to be in their classroom for a full day and then expected to work after-hours with students who were unable to log on and look at school work until the evening.

Classified employees are essential as well, Fillpot noted, and will also be asked to play an active role in a new educational environment.

Many will find themselves with amended duties such as contacting parents of students who have not been engaged in learning activities or helping prepare supplies, he said by way of example.

“We need their help in this process of distance learning,” Fillpot commented. “We want everybody to feel like they are a contributor to the whole process.”

Safety was not the only issue raised, Fillpot noted, as nearly 20 district employees - primarily classified staff - also expressed concerns regarding their own child care circumstances.

“We are looking at how we can accommodate the child care but at the same time have them at school so they can provide the kind of support that all of our students need,” he explained.