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Union-district negotiations pushed to next week as educators call out sick en masse

The San Francisco Unified School District and labor negotiators failed to reach an agreement on Thursday and will head back to the bargaining table next week to negotiate the terms of an updated health and safety agreement as hundreds of teachers stayed home, either due to Covid exposure or symptoms or in solidarity with a teacher-organized “sick out” on Jan. 6.

Despite 616 teachers absent on Thursday, all school sites were open, SFUSD representatives said. That’s on par with similar absenteeism rates this week, but significantly higher than the pre-pandemic norm of 250 to 300 absences per day. Organizers of the “sick out” told The Standard earlier this week that it’ll be impossible to know just how many teachers joined them to protest what they say are inadequate Covid safety measures versus those who stayed home because of a Covid infection or exposure. More than 700 people signed the organizers’ petition urging teachers to skip school to demand safe working conditions. 

Although Thursday’s “sick out” was not arranged by the teachers’ union, organizers scheduled the protest to coincide with a meeting between SFUSD and its unions—including the United Educators of San Francisco, Service Employees International Union 1021, United Administrators of San Francisco, International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 and the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council—to discuss updates to their health and safety agreement, which expired at the end of last year. 

In a video update on Twitter, UESF President Cassondra Curiel said the union came to the bargaining table on Thursday to ask the district for three things: access to respiratory masks and weekly testing for all staff and students and an extension of last year’s 10 Covid-specific sick days. 

After two sessions of bargaining on Thursday, the district proposed five sick days, the amount of time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends isolating if Covid-positive, and “to make reasonable best efforts” to supply high-quality masks for employees only. The unions did not accept the district’s proposal, saying it did not meet the minimum teachers and staff need to keep schools operating safely. In a statement, the unions wrote that the district asked for more time to calculate the cost of providing 10 days of Covid sick leave. 

“These measures are necessary to protect students and staff and could have been easily finalized today,” Curiel said. 

In a statement, SFUSD said that the 10 Covid-related sick days offered last year were funded by the state—funding that’s not promised for this school year. The groups will go back to the bargaining table next week on Thursday. 

The negotiations come as hundreds of SFUSD teachers have called out sick this week, creating a mass shortage of teachers in local classrooms. With not enough substitutes to cover classes, every credentialed administrator, including Superintendent Vincent Matthews, was assigned to teach in classrooms yesterday.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Curiel called the district “negligent” for failing to stock up on tests, masks and back-up staff in preparation for the current Omicron surge—particularly after a successful opening of schools during the height of the Delta wave. 

“We are not in unprecedented times,” Curiel said. “This is precedented.” 

At Thursday’s meeting, Curiel asked for an updated agreement that includes a reinstatement of last year’s 10 sick days for Covid-related absences, greater testing availability and high-quality N95 and KN95 masks for all staff and students. She said there has been no deal to date to provide high-quality masks to students.

UESF president Cassondra Curiel speaks at the SFUSD headquarters on Jan. 5, 2022. | Sarah Wright

Curiel said while the union is not currently asking teachers to walk out of classrooms, if the union did not hear a serious response from the district on Thursday, it may consider starting its process for organizing a strike. Curiel said the union stands in solidarity with teachers in Chicago who are now on their second day of a strike to demand greater safety protocols at schools.  

“I know that members feel desperate, and I don’t blame them at all,” Curiel said. 

Greg McGarry, who is one of the three educators who organized the “sick out,” said he believes he may have been exposed to Covid multiple times on Monday, but never got an official exposure notification. Today, while he’s out of school, he’s getting two tests to see if he’s positive since his regularly scheduled Tuesday test would have been too soon to detect the virus. 

“This ‘sick out’ is turning into a regular sick day,” McGarry said. “It was inevitable.”

Rori Abernethy, a math teacher at James Denman Middle School and a co-organizer of the “sick out,” said she and most of her colleagues aren’t focused on the political implications of staying home—they’re worried about keeping their families safe, and feel forced to choose between their safety and serving their students.

“Nobody is thinking about sticking it to the man,” Abernethy said. “That’s not what people are doing. They’re just trying to make the best decision for their lives.”