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US, California teacher union officials visit Petaluma schools, talk success and shortfalls of the new school year

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, visited two Petaluma schools Tuesday, as part of her 20-state “Back to School for All” tour touting the feasibility of returning to full-time, in-person instruction. Weingarten, who has backed vaccine mandates for school staff, was joined Tuesday at McDowell Elementary and Casa Grande High School by Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers and Sandra Larsen, president of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers.

The Press Democrat spoke with all three union leaders about the start of the school year, the coronavirus pandemic and health safeguards. The interview below has edited for clarity and brevity.

Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers

Question: What are looking to highlight in your tour and why the stop in Sonoma County?

Answer: In May, we said that we're going to put skin in the game behind our campaign for back to school for everybody. We put $5 million out into the field. And the California Federation of Teachers took one of those grants, and have been knocking on doors and standing up vaccine clinics and helping support back to school efforts like at in Petaluma. And I really wanted to see these amazing back to school efforts. We know kids really need to be in school, we know the positive effects of being in school, of really ensuring that we end the social isolation that being that COVID had created.

Q: The state and the federal government made significant investments in education this year. The school year has started and protections are in place, but people are still feeling nervous about COVID-19 cases. From teachers’ perspective, how should that money be best spent to mitigate risk?

A: I think that there's three ways that we need to use this historic investment. One is the safeguards, like the masks that we’re wearing, like making sure that vaccines are free, like upgrading ventilation systems, making sure there's soap and water in schools. So the safety precautions are one. But the second is what are the things we're doing to help our kids thrive? Do we have social and emotional supports? We need to make sure that we have sufficient numbers of educators, we need to make sure we have mental health professionals, we need to wrap services around. And all of that was part and parcel of the American Rescue Plan (the March 2021 federal COVID relief bill). And then the third thing we need to do is we need to help kids not only get their mojo back, but actually wake up every morning and say, ‘I want to be in school.’ So it has to be safety, emotional, social and then academics.

Jeff Freitas, California Federation of Teachers

Q: What have you seen in these first weeks of school that has you feeling encouraged? What are schools doing right?

A: What I think is great is the mitigating measures. The mask-wearing, the ventilation, the outdoors and the vaccines. A high number of our members are vaccinated. And that's amazing too. That really helps us to feel comfortable to be back in this space. The other thing I would say is the excitement of people being back. We're a social animal and we know as educators. That’s why we got into it, to help our students. And we know they learn best in person. People are excited to be back, to be able to provide that. It's cautious optimism.

Q: Where do schools need to improve?

A: One of the systems that we're concerned about is this (independent study) system. We knew students and families were starting to have some concern for the delta variant so (the Legislature) said, put them in this (independent study program). And throughout the state, no one is having a good experience. Another one is lack of teachers. The supply of incoming teachers is way down and it already was before COVID. Lack of classified staff: We have so few custodians and janitors and that's all important right now, as well as bus drivers and secretaries.

Sandra Larsen, Petaluma Federation of Teachers

Q: One week into the school year in Petaluma, how have things been going?

A: Everyone's just so happy. The kids are happy, the staff is happy. There’s nothing like in-person learning, I feel like what we lost in the distance learning, it's like we appreciate it more, because we have it back. I teach elementary, and kids have been wearing their masks, it's no problem. So that's been really good.

Q: Where do Petaluma schools need to make progress?

A: I think we have to realize how stressful it is at every level. I mean as a teacher who hadn’t stood that long (in a while) I was so exhausted. I think we really have been working with the district to plan for social emotional (learning) and letting kids know it's OK, like how you’re feeling is OK. We've also been working with the district on, when somebody gets sick, what we're going to do? Because that’s going to happen. There are some (cases) but as I understand, there's been no student-to-student transmission.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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