First published in the Jan. 22 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
With a more transmissible Omicron variant causing a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations throughout the state, the Burbank Unified School District’s plans for a testing mandate have been put on hold due to staffing shortages.
Under the direction of the Board of Education, district staff was hopeful of implementing required testing for students and employees by Jan. 24, but Superintendent Matt Hill said such a task isn’t possible at the time.
“There’s not enough people to be able to have dedicated clinics at every single school,” he told the board in a meeting Thursday.
Demand for testing remains high among Burbank students and employees. Stakeholders have had to wait in line for as long as two hours for a test. Hill acknowledged it wasn’t “a smooth process” and that the district is working with each site on how to streamline it.
The district is waiting on two orders of self-test kits — one of 5,000 and another of 53,000 — and they plan on distributing most of them to employees. The reasoning behind prioritizing teachers and staff is that it would allow schools to determine whether a substitute will be needed before Monday. Burbank is also hoping to provide families with at-home test kits before spring break so that students can be tested before returning to campus.
BUSD has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases among its staff and students in the past 14 days, a trend that most school districts in the state are grappling with. Burbank has had 1,490 confirmed cases since the beginning of the school year, and 849 of those were from Jan. 6-20, according to the BUSD COVID-19 dashboard. There have been 170 cases among staff since Aug. 16, with 75 of them recorded in the past two weeks.
Hill said that the district was stretched thin during the first week back from the winter break, with a daily average of 100 teachers absent. With the high demand for substitutes, the district was close to considering school closure. Fortunately for BUSD, more teachers began returning to their classrooms and the current daily average is now down to 61 absences.
Attendance among students also shot up this week to 82% — roughly a 7 percentage point bump from the previous week. However, the rate remains far from the usual 96% during a normal year. An estimated 1,600 students are not attending school or are in independent study.
Vice President Steve Ferguson expressed concern over the number of students not in class and asked that staff investigate the matter further and bring it back to the board at a future meeting.
“I’d like to see a plan brought back in understanding what the population looks like, the population that is not being currently served, and outreach methods,” he said. “What are we doing? Emails, phone calls, parent meetings, counselor meetings? Who’s being deployed to get those kids back?”
Ferguson also requested that district staff better communicate with stakeholders and keep them informed about the situation.
“I think it’s ok to [set expectations] with people and be honest with them [that] this is going to be a pain and this is going to be a pain for a long time because nobody’s ready for this,” he said.
BUSD PROHIBITS INSTRUCTIONAL MATERIALS WITH DEROGATORY WORD
The Board of Education approved a revision to the district’s board policy and administrative regulation that forbid teachers from using instructional material, such as novels or textbooks, that includes the N-word.
Though such novels will remain available at school libraries, some board members grappled with the decision but felt it was the right thing to do at this time.
“It’s very difficult,” said board member Steve Frintner. “I don’t want students not to be able to read certain authors or certain material, but I do think we need to be cautious in the way we do this. Students have had issues in the past and we need to make them feel like they are not being traumatized by being in the class and hearing [the N-word].”
The district has been working to change its policy for years and one of first major decisions was made in November 2020 when Superintendent Hill removed Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Theodore Taylor’s “The Cay” and Mildred D. Taylor’s “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” from the required reading list. The use of the N-word in all classes, regardless of context, was also banned then.
Some have been vocal about their opposition to Hill’s decision, including Burbank High School senior Madison Clevenger.
“You cannot silence hundreds of authors and their work for the sake of the word,” Clevenger, who is the president of the Black student union at BHS, told the board Thursday. “The word was never the problem. … The problem was failure on behalf of everyone else to understand the severity of this content.”
She added that removing works from Black authors because it includes derogatory language would promote ignorance and less empathy for Black people.
At the suggestion of BUSD Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultant Stefani McCoy, Destiny Helligar, a junior at John Burroughs High School, voiced a differing opinion to the board, saying that novels that include offensive language should be “taught to students in a way that warns against the dangers of systemic racism and explains the historical significance behind the language that is used.
“Until our teachers and our district are prepared to handle these discrepancies, these books should not return to the core curriculum,” she added. “I’m not a supporter of censorship, but I am a supporter of elevating our education system.”
Board member Emily Weisberg, a history educator herself, agreed with both students, and clarified that it’s not just about banning literature that contain offensive language.
“The book pause isn’t about the N-word in and of itself,” she said. “The book pause is about making sure that our students feel heard, safe, protected and seen in the classroom, both in the materials that we read but also in the way that that material is taught.
“We knew that there was enough trauma caused to our students and that we need to pause and figure out how we can better support our teachers in engaging with complex materials.”
The board and district staff assured that it will continue to work on the curriculum to deliver an education with more diverse voices, and it got a little help from Helligar, who — as a representative of the Destiny Education Project — presented a $1,000 check to John Muir Middle School toward the purchase of books that are diverse and inclusive.