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The Teacher’s Union: Balancing Urgency and Uncertainty During the Pandemic

According to BFT members, the union has been engaged in non-stop negotiations in the face of community pressure and COVID-19 uncertainty.  

In early 2020, The Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) was coming off of a year and a half of negotiations for the 2019-21 teacher’s contract agreement. 2020 was intended to be an off year; a break from the contract negotiating that happened the year prior. 

However, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Berkeley schools mid-March, launching the union and district into non-stop negotiations lasting into 2021, as they worked to form a plan for re-entering normalcy in Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) schools. While a reopening agreement has recently been reached, their work is far from over. 

“The uncertainty has forced us to be on our toes constantly, the timeline has constantly been changing,” said BFT President Matt Meyer. Throughout this past summer, the BFT mainly focused on negotiating a reopening timeline, with the impression that schools could begin the fall with hybrid learning. However, COVID-19 surges and changes in expectation pushed the union to instead rush forward a proposal for full distance learning at all BUSD schools. Additionally, November surges in COVID-19 cases pushed back reopening plans once again for the district. 

Despite this, the BFT has continued to survey their entire membership regularly, in efforts to maintain constant communication with teachers and their interests. Berkeley High School (BHS) Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA) teacher Amanda Toporek is a BFT member, as well as BHS area vice president for the BFT. According to Toporek, “We get really high [survey] response rates, and we can see what the data is showing us and make it easy to understand and show to our members.”

For example, Phase 1 reopening, which brought small cohorts back to elementary schools, grew out of a concern for equity that many teachers shared. “Our members are really worried about really specific populations of students,” Toporek said about some of the findings from the BFT’s teacher surveys. “We’re all just trying to find solutions to support our students in ways that are safe and useful.”

“There’s been a certain amount of public misconception about how we’re spending our time right now,” said BFT Treasurer Cynthia Allman. Vocal parents blaming the union, as well as conflicting protests and opinions, have impacted the way the BFT has been viewed in the public eye. “I think there’s an idea that somehow [the union] is some force keeping teachers from going back,” Allman said. “But we are the teachers, and we’re representing our teachers. It’s a democracy.”

This democracy, though, has led to conflicting views within the union — something Cragmont Union Representative Nancy King said has been a “thorn in our side.” According to King, select BFT members have engaged in protests, claiming to be from the BFT while, “most of the union does not support [them].” She explained that, “While this extreme wing often has good ideas, the manifestation of those ideas is often detrimental to our reputation.”

Additionally, external pressure and politics has proved another hurdle for the union and district to deal with. Allman recalled that she and other union leaders have received several hateful emails from parents — something that had never happened before. She added that the school board has felt similar pressure. “They’re being criticized when they try to think of the needs of kids whose parents aren’t coming to the school board and shouting at them every week,” Allman said.

“The feelings about the relative safety of school reopening vary within our own community,” said BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens. He added that union negotiations offer “the best opportunity to hear the collective voices of our employees and the concerns that they’ve been expressing for a very long time.” 

Superintendent Stephens has always pushed to reopen as soon as possible, as “he is under enormous pressure,” King said. However, according to Allman, the recent reopening timeline sent out could’ve been worded better, in order to suggest a tentative in-person experience, as opposed to regular hybrid classes for middle and high schools — something which she feels is unrealistic. 

“We don’t always see eye to eye,” Allman said. Despite the push and pull of conflicting goals from separate sides, she said, “We are working together and [the superintendent] has said the union is not the obstacle, which we believe is true.”

As the union plans to finalize the reopening agreement vote soon, much work remains to be done. In regards to the rest of the spring and the following school year, “We are hoping to have conversations with students and parents about what we need to do to fully support students, given that we’ve been virtual all year,” Meyer said. 

“We are all different people, experiencing the world differently,” Toporek said. “[Our team] has all these people who have really different perspectives and can come up with a really creative solution. And that’s really awesome.”

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