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April 14, 2021
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Local school board taking heat

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
October 30, 2020

The Cotati Rohnert Park USD held a special meeting online Tuesday, October 27. There were only two agenda items. One was routine. The other sent sparks flying. As reported last week, during the board’s regular meeting of October 17, public comments indicated parents were frustrated with distance learning. They wanted a plan. They still do. Looking at the agenda prior to the meeting, it appeared Dr. Mayra Perez, Superintendent of the District, was going to lead a discussion to try and meet their concerns. But before she had the chance, public comments were read.

The first comment set a tone. It slammed the teachers’ union implying it was they who were getting in the way of opening schools. It put forth the threat of a class action lawsuit. By my count, 31 comments were read. Sixty percent were from teachers. Many shared common themes. Because of that a listener might be forgiven for thinking an organized campaign was underway. Or maybe, it was just that the teachers were tired of getting beat up over distance learning and accused of putting their interests ahead of the kids. 

One such theme was that teachers too, want to get back into the classroom. They miss their kids and the interactions with them. Distance learning is hard on them also. They’ve had to change their teaching styles and lesson plans almost overnight, adapting to new technology and ways of keeping students engaged during a pandemic while also taking care of their families. They too are stressed, many said working harder than they ever did when teaching in person. Many said they “do not feel safe” returning to in person classrooms. Some have health conditions, either themselves or their families, that ramp up the fear of catching COVID. Others talked about how heartbreaking it would be for them and the kids if by coming back too early, they caught the virus and spread it to others. What if more than illness, a death resulted? How would that effect the kids?

Many acknowledged that distance learning was not the ideal or best situation. Amy Miller, a teacher in the district, said, “I do not like distance learning at all” but added we’re “doing the best we can.” One said they had “compassionate empathy” for the parents and the kids. Another said it was “dangerous to return.” Yet another said the issue was getting politicized. Michelle Wing, running against incumbent Tim Nonn for a Trustee’s seat this November said, “plans need to be made and communicated now.” 

And that too was a theme, of the proponents of opening schools. There is a division: open now, to no not now. Between as soon as we’re allowed by the county or not at all during the 2020-21 school year. Many said, we understand we’re in purple and can’t open until the county allows us. But we want to know what the plan is. We know you’re working on plans, but we want more transparency. It seems the teachers’ union can inform their membership that distance learning will go through the end of the year, but the parents aren’t allowed to know. Distance learning is failing our kids. The mental health issues, the social isolation and the loss of learning may be worse than the virus.

So, the board, and thus the district, is between a rock and a hard place. Reflective of that were the heated words between Trustee Chrissa Gillies and Jennifer Wiltermood. To many, Gillies represents the “gloom and doom” viewpoint that parents who want hope are tired of hearing. They are tired of “we can’t.” They want to know what will be done when “we can.” Gillies for her part is frustrated too. She goes out, sees folks walking around or playing sports in the parks with parents watching, without maintaining social distance or wearing masks. Wiltermood too was “pissed” that we didn’t already have a plan for reopening when allowed to do so. 

Nonn was angry too. He resents teachers working their butts off, being the target of comments that imply they have motives other than the health and safety of their kids and the staff for not going back to work. In his own frustration he said, “you can’t teach someone who is dead.” Perez maintained her composure and presented her PowerPoint. It illuminated what the criteria was from the county for reopening. It laid out the challenges. It highlighted what research and efforts the district was taking to prepare for when, or if, the schools can reopen. Was it enough? That remains to be seen. She’ll be gathering more information and coming back with recommendations at the next regular school board meeting on November 17.