As Newsom pushes for return to classrooms, teachers say it would put them at risk

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — Most public school students in California have been out of the classroom for close to a year.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he wants to send them back soon but teachers unions say it’s still not safe enough. 

For the majority of Krista Bitonti’s 30-year teaching career, the classroom was a place she looked forward to going. But the thought of returning to school in the middle of a global pandemic has the lifelong educator concerned.

“My heart really wants to,” the Dyer-Kelly Elementary School teacher told FOX40. “I just don’t know if it’s in the best interest of myself or my family. It seems like a big risk.”

Like most public school staff up and down the Golden State, Bitonti has been teaching online since March.

She said she desperately wants to be back in the classroom with her students, as the governor has called on educators to do soon. 

But until she gets her COVID-19 vaccine, she said she feels that her health and safety are in jeopardy.

“If a vaccine were to be available for educators, many more of our at-risk educators could return to site in a safe way,” she said. “Many of us are over 50, myself included, have underlying health concerns, have family members in the home that they care for that have health risks. So, it’s not just about the safety of the children, it’s about the safety of all the people we come into contact with.” 

Bitoniti teaches in the San Juan Unified School District. The district hopes to welcome students back to campus twice a week once Sacramento County is upgraded to the red tier in the state’s reopening plan.

SJUSD sent FOX40 a statement Monday, saying in part:

We have put in place a comprehensive safety plan in consultation with our teachers association, local health officials and others to ensure everything possible is done to protect the health and safety of our staff members and students. Access to vaccinations is just one strategy that must be combined with other precautions.

San Juan Unified School District

But the president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association said plans to protect students and staff don’t go far enough.

“We all want to go back and we all miss our students, we all miss being in-person live but in this situation, literally we are talking about life and death,” SCTA President David Fisher said.

Fisher said in addition to physical distancing and mask mandates, he would like to see improvements in ventilation and all teachers vaccinated before in-person classes resume.

“We have to prioritize the health and well-being and safety of our students and their families and our staff. That has to be the first priority,” he added.

At Sacramento City Unified schools, the district began operating learning hubs across 13 of their campuses in October, with small groups of 12 students each gathering to learn.

At least one student who was part of a SCUSD hub tested positive for COVID-19 as recently as January, according to an email sent to students and staff. The email said the student did not come in close contact with anyone on campus.

The SCUSD hubs are an example of what classrooms might look like in the age of COVID-19.

SCUSD also provided the following statement that reads in part:

Our district has implemented strict health and safety protocols, consistent with and even rising above local, state, and federal standards. In addition to protocols for physical distancing, hand hygiene, screenings, and face coverings, we are looking at each and every detail to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 on our campuses. We’re going above and beyond the minimum requirements to protect our students, staff, and community.

Sacramento City Unified School District

“We desperately need to get back for the students and so that we can do our jobs to the best of our ability,” Bitonti said.

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