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Union leaders and Denali students reflect on SPS reopening policies

By Keith Dinh and Angela Hwang

Staff Editors

Summit Denali reopened for in-person classes on April 1, following negotiations between the teachers’ union and the administration. The negotiations concluded on March 29 with the teachers being allowed to return voluntarily. 

In March, students were given the option to return to in-person classes. Those who chose to go back remain in 14-person cohorts throughout the day. They and those who decided to stay in distance learning continue classes online.

Unite Summit Vice President Sarah Rivas PHOTO CREDIT: Meria Rothrock and Nadia Tatishcheva

Prior to the reopening, some teachers expressed concern over whether they would have to go back to school due to Summit’s position. Unite Summit Vice President Sarah Rivas said, “For a long time, Summit’s proposal was in some ways, teachers may be made to come back even if they didn’t want to.” 

She also added that, while there were reasons Summit would consider valid for refusing to return, there were also reasons the teachers thought valid, but Summit did not consider so. “If you lived with someone who was compromised, but they’re not a family member, that wasn’t a reason,” she said. “Mental health issues weren’t a reason, didn’t seem to be a reason.” Childcare concerns were also not a valid reason. 

This stance pushed a teacher to resign. Denali junior Donovan Pelton said, “Last Thursday [March 18], [a teacher] said she was leaving based on the fact that she may have to come into school on April 1, come into physical school that is, despite her not being fully vaccinated, having a preexisting condition and living with other people that have not been vaccinated.” Pelton started a petition to keep the teacher the same day he heard she would be resigning, which has gathered 213 signatures. 

Denali junior Donovan Pelton
PHOTO CREDIT: Donovan Pelton

However, according to Unite Summit Treasurer Morris Shieh, “As of Monday, it was a completely voluntary return that’s been signed both by the union and by Summit.” In other words, teachers would not be mandated to return. 

“After [the agreement] was signed, she’d already put in her resignation and I think for some teachers, the hurt is still there, whether they’ve chosen to resign or not,” Ms. Rivas said regarding the teacher’s choice to uphold her resignation. She was also referring to the teachers’ feelings that they might have been forced back, regardless of whether they felt their reasons for staying away were valid. 

Unite Summit Treasurer Morris Shieh PHOTO CREDIT: Keith Dinh

Mr. Shieh said, “From a management perspective, Administration’s always going to try to encourage teachers to return to try and meet demand.” He cited Summit Tahoma’s run with teacher volunteers, then added later, “I think both sides, Unite Summit and Summit, went into this knowing that there’s going to be a trade-off between student demand and teacher willingness or capability due to health, living situations etc. We did agree that a voluntary proposal made the most sense.”

Pelton pointed out that “Summit had a history of not being particularly good to their teachers and treating their teachers with the respect that they deserve.” He went on, “Previously, multiple teachers were fired for being in a union and Summit also pays their teachers very low amounts compared to the rest of the area because they’re a charter school and while the CEO makes more money than any other school, the teachers make a very low amount.”

Summit News reported Summit Public Schools CEO Dianne Tavenner makes over $450 thousand per year. According to Board On Track, a little over 85% of charter school CEOs earn less than $200 thousand a year nationwide. The others earn more than that. 

According to Glassdoor, Summit Public Schools teachers make an average of about $61 thousand per year with a range of $54-$93 thousand dollars per year. To put it in perspective, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation states the 2020 poverty guideline for a family of four is $26,200 per year, meaning if the household brings in less than that amount, they are officially poor. KQED further states that in 2013, “Even 300 percent of that poverty line, $70,650, falls well below the comfortable threshold proposed by the Economic Policy Institute for Bay Area cities.” The average living cost has only gone up since 2013. 

In the summer of 2020, Summit Public Schools instituted a pay freeze which was then repealed and the teachers received compensation. Ms. Rivas said the pay freeze felt like a “similar situation” to this. 

Unite Summit Vice President Sarah Rivas PHOTO CREDIT: Meria Rothrock and Nadia Tatishcheva

“It was very stressful to hear from coworkers that they were afraid for their lives, for their childrens’ lives,” Ms. Rivas said regarding her experience before the agreement was signed. She also said “there was a little more trust being taken away in regards to Summit” because “Summit continued to push for it [teachers’ return] to be mandatory in some way, [which] caused some harm, but I think that their eventual acknowledgement to make it voluntary, that is a step toward repairing that relationship.”

“The union was there to do the best thing for teachers and students,” Ms. Rivas said. “And that’s all we want to do. And that’s why we’re continuing to fight for teachers, and that’s why they should continue to reach out to other representatives if they need help … That’s what we’re there for.”

Featured image at the top of page:

Denali high school students social distance in a classroom on new campus while attending virtual school. PHOTO CREDIT: Erick Sanchez

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