San Jose teachers now allowed to work from home

Less than 24-hours before the start of the new school year, a last-minute reversal gave San Jose teachers the choice to work from home.
SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- On Wednesday morning, 28,000 students within the San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) will be welcomed back for the first day of school.

SJUSD is the first school district in the Bay Area to offer a full school day to students who are distance learning. Teachers have been preparing to instruct from empty classrooms after that directive was announced previously by the district. However, less than 24-hours before the start of the new school year, a last-minute reversal gave teachers the choice to work from home.

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"10:30, the day before the first day of school. This is the definition of too little too late," Paul Sawyer told ABC7 News.

Sawyer is a special education teacher at Willow Glen High School. He explained, he recently put in for a 12-week leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

"I was already very adamant against the edict of having us be in the classroom to do our distance learning to our students who are at home, for both pedagogical reasons, exposure reasons and the reasons of myself being a parent and my son being able to have a quality educational experience," Sawyer shared.

He continued, "It is, to be very kind, problematic. To be blunt, as an educator entering his 19th year in education, a disaster. It was poorly rolled out. It is a convoluted product. It has not been properly given to us in a way that the teachers are prepared."

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Sawyer was one of many who made the decision after SJUSD announced its teachers must return to the classroom, despite safety concerns. Then the reversal was announced. He shared an e-mail sent by San Jose Teachers Association President Patrick Bernhardt.

"Dear SJTA: I write with what I hope will be welcome news for many of you. Late yesterday, SJTA was able to reach an agreement with SJUSD that gives all SJTA employees the ability to choose to work from home," the e-mail read.

Bernhardt wrote out the "basics," explaining an employee must complete a form to register their choice. Permission to work from home begins once the form is submitted, and continues through September 26th. It explained the choice cannot be made on a day-to-day basis. Instead, once decided, the employee must work from home until Sept. 26, or until a return is approved by HR. If an employee working from home "doesn't fulfill their job responsibilities and doesn't call in an absence," they could face a dock in pay.

"For 1,600 teachers and nearly 30,000 students of this district, this is toxic," Sawyer added. "I'm still trying to wrap my head around this. But I know that I'm going to take care of my son, and by proxy then took care of my wife and myself. And I'm not going to subject myself to an experience where I'm trying to teach these special education students when it's not teaching, it's accountability so that they can still receive funding."

Sawyer also expressed criticism of what he said is the district's lack of preparation and disregard for its teachers.

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ABC7 News also connected with Kelly Walker. She's a teacher at Willow Glen High School as well. Before the reversal, Walker had issues navigating childcare. With two daughters, a 3-month-old and a 2-year-old, she requested to work from home.

"I applied for accommodation to work from home with my baby, and it was declined. So since then, we actually were able to find daycare for her that we're very, very happy with, but it was quite a challenging time," Walker explained.

According to a press release by the district, prior to the reversal, SJUSD had already approved more than 150 requests for employees to work from home.

Even with her childcare situation figured out, Walker told ABC7 News, "I still felt like just because my problem was solved, it didn't mean that everybody else's problem was resolved and there was still something not quite right." She is set to return to the classroom on Wednesday.

"It puts me in the right frame of mind to be in my office, versus my home," she explained. "But that's because we solved our childcare problem."

When asked about Tuesday's reversal, she told ABC7 News, "My frustration is more that they couldn't make a decision earlier. I feel like we've had a lot of time to figure out what was going to be the plan, and this could have been figured out a long time ago, from my perspective, at least."

SJUSD Public Engagement Officer Ben Spielberg responded to the criticism. He explained, "I would say that a challenge of distance learning, in general, has been a fast timeline in which everything is moved. But we've been really happy and really feel grateful to have the relationship that we do with our employee groups, including our teacher's union- to be able to work really hard on a tight timeline to establish policies that support our families, support our students and support our teachers and staff."

Sawyer maintained, "This is not 'whoo,' the first day of school jitters. This is, 'I don't have the log-ins, my kids don't have their materials, we don't know if we have the tech. This is a disaster. No hyperbole intended. This is an educational disaster."

For the next 12 weeks, he, like many, will have his eyes on education.

"12 weeks buys me some time to see how so many of the things are going to shift. I mean, beyond the district, union, school site," he said. "We're talking county, state, nationally with, the response to the epidemic. We'd be a week away from a presidential election. So there's a lot that is going to change."

Sawyer acknowledged that any blame will likely fall on teachers, "All the parents and the students are going to be looking into their school sites and the teachers and the administrators of the schools. There is not going to be as much heat coming into the district office, I guarantee that."

For current information about SJUSD, Parents and community members are being encouraged to check the district's website, here.

ABC7 News has reached out to the San Jose Teachers Association for comment, but have not heard back.

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