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About 60 Huntington Beach high school teachers take leave due to on-campus requirement

Huntington Beach High School students leave campus after attending hybrid instruction on Feb. 2.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Shannon Atkins was in a bicycle accident in 2016 and sustained injuries that hampered her ability to teach math at Fountain Valley High.

“I didn’t walk for a year,” she said. “My doctor wanted me to stay out [of class] for at least three months, and I went back after three weeks. I still have the effects of that bad decision.”

Atkins, who has taught at Fountain Valley since 2009 as part of a 21-year teaching career, was determined not to make the same mistake when coming back to the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic. She said she has an underlying medical condition that makes her at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Atkins is one of approximately 60 Huntington Beach Union High School District teachers who have been on leave since Feb. 2, when the district instituted a mandatory policy that teachers must be on campus when the students returned for hybrid learning for the second semester.

Atkins said she ultimately placed her health above her job, though she regrets that it came to that choice. A substitute is now teaching her classes.

The 1,250-student school in San Juan Capistrano became one of few campuses in the state and the largest in Orange County to reopen in September.

“It’s nothing short of devastating to have to leave my students,” she said. “I’m still writing sub plans, I’m still making videos. My students are still seeing me every single day, even though I’m using sick days to not be in the classroom … When I talked to my students about it, every Zoom call, I cried. I don’t want to leave them. I want them to trust me and I want them to know that I care about them.”

There are about 690 teachers in the district, which includes Edison, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, Marina, Ocean View and Westminster high schools, as well as three alternate schools. Of those, about 200 vowed not to return to campus when the schools first reopened for hybrid learning in November.

The district went back to virtual learning following its winter break, through the end of the first semester. That was when it instituted the requirement that teachers could no longer teach virtually but must instead be in the classroom.

“It’s an impossible situation,” said Carolee Ogata, HBUHSD deputy superintendent of human resources, noting that more than 90% of teachers are now back on campus. “We are working to make sure that staff are safe, while trying to make sure our students are getting the best education they can. The learning loss, we’re worried about, but also students’ mental health. It’s an important issue right now … There is no replacement for a teacher in the classroom.”

Those on leave either have personal or family medical issues or a childcare issue, she said. Paid sick days, unpaid leave or paid disability are their options.

“It’s the same thing that all of the school districts are doing who are open, whether it’s Los [Alamitos], Saddleback, [Capistrano Valley], Tustin, Irvine,” she said. “After the holidays, we knew there would be a surge. Looking at February, we saw the declining cases. We work to make sure that every decision is made on current data and information from healthcare professionals.”

Only about 40% of students have returned to the optional hybrid model that has them on campus two days a week, Ogata said, though she expects that number to increase. The rest remain in full distance learning, even as their teachers are required to be on campus.

Shawne Hume, an English teacher at Marina who is the president of the Huntington Beach Union High School District Educators Assn., has been a strong advocate for teachers to continue working remotely.

Students walk across Brookhurst Street as they leave campus at Edison High School on Nov. 3, 2020.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“The numbers [in class] are very, very low,” Hume said. “For example, today I had zero students in my first period class, I had three students in my third period and I had one student in my fifth period. And everyone else is online. So, these teachers can teach. We have the model, they have the desire, they have the skill. I mean, goodness, we’ve all learned how to be distance teachers in the past year, and now we’re bringing in substitutes who have never done this before.”

One longtime English teacher in the district, who requested anonymity due to fear of retribution from the district, said she’s had to stay home from school due to a compromised immune system. Two of her four children also have a form of muscular dystrophy and a muscle weakness disorder, she said.

“I know our student population thoroughly and have lots of content area expertise,” she said. “Instead of me teaching them, either from home or putting together a virtual academy, there is now a 22-year-old with a math degree teaching my English classes. She has never read almost anything that’s going to be required.

“Not one person ever came to observe my virtual class. Not one person ever came to see if I was doing a good job, or to see if I could continue teaching virtually,” she added.

Hume said the vast majority of the 60 teachers on leave would be back on campus once vaccinated. But vaccines have been slow to roll out; teachers in Orange County aren’t expected to start being vaccinated for at least two weeks.

Ogata said the district will continue working with Dr. Clayton Chau and the Orange County Health Care Agency, as well as school nurses, to see how it can support the vaccination process.

“We would certainly love to get all of our staff, classified and certificated employees vaccinated so they do feel safe,” she said. “That’s our goal.”

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