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Another Councilman Joins Growing Call to Re-Open Fresno Schools

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Fresno City Councilman Miguel Arias, whose two children are enrolled in Fresno Unified schools, is adding his voice to the growing chorus of parents and others who say it’s time for the district to reopen campuses to in-person instruction.

Arias will be joining parents clamoring for schools to reopen at a City Hall news conference Friday afternoon. They are urging the district, California’s third-largest, to set aside its current reopening plan and a labor agreement that would postpone in-person instruction for many students until Fresno County reaches the orange tier in the state’s reopening plan.

Photo of Councilman Miguel Arias and his son

Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias and son, Diego, in 2020 (Image: City of Fresno)

The orange tier denotes that the risk of coronavirus infection is moderate. Fresno County has never been in the orange tier and has remained for months in the purple tier, denoting widespread infection risk.

Gov. Newsom Urges Reopening During Fresno Visit

The sense of urgency over returning to face-to-face instruction was echoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday morning during a visit to Fresno.

‘With respect, our kids can’t wait,” Newsom said. “They can’t afford another day, another week, another month without the social emotional benefits of being safely in school and in person. We can get this done.”

Newsom said he has been in negotiations with the Legislature since December on a $6.6 billion plan that he believes will pave the way for most elementary schools across the state to reopen. An announcement could come early next week, he said.

Arias Careful with Criticism of Fresno Unified

Arias is being careful not to be overly critical of Fresno Unified, which he praises for stepping forward last spring to expand its school meal program to feed adults as well as children at a time when many risked going hungry.

But with infection rates now declining in the county, ample safety protocols and materials on hand at schools, and with school staffers being prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations starting Monday, now is the time for the district to shift gears and reopen schools, he said.

“We’re confident the district can do this,” Arias said.

But reopening now will require revision of an agreement with the Fresno Teachers Association that was signed by Superintendent Bob Nelson and union president Manuel Bonilla in January and that commits the district to reopening no sooner than the orange tier.

Fresno Unified Side Letter with Fresno Teachers Association

Arias said renegotiation of such agreements typically can take months, but he said the district and teachers union are capable of doing so in a matter of days, paving the way for schools to reopen quickly.

The side letter agreement to the teachers contract spells out the safety protocols that will be in place once schools reopen, on-site or remote teaching options, and accommodations for teachers deemed at high risk.

Under the agreement, Fresno Unified agrees to pay teachers up to $2,750 in additional compensation if they simultaneously teach students in the classroom and students who remain on distance learning by parental choice.

Clovis Unified, which rolled out simultaneous teaching last fall in elementary school classrooms, is not paying extra to those teachers, district spokeswoman Kelly Avants told GV Wire℠.

Pressure Mounting on District

Friday afternoon’s news conference is the latest in a growing movement in the community to pressure Fresno Unified to follow other local school districts and reopen to in-person instruction. That included a proposal last week by City Councilman Garry Bredefeld for the city to file suit against Fresno Unified to force it to reopen, similar to action taken recently by San Francisco’s council.

Arias said he rejected Bredefeld’s proposal because “you don’t start a conversation with a lawsuit.”

He said he has spent the past two weeks talking with parents and district officials, visiting schools, and reviewing the district’s reopening plan and labor agreement. It quickly became clear that the reopening plan doesn’t take parents, many of whom are essential workers who can’t remain home with their kids, into account, he said.

With the rest of the economy reopening, schools need to follow suit, and the district needs to recognize the inequity imposed on thousands of Fresno Unified parents when schools remain shuttered, Arias said.

He said that three-fourths of Fresno Unified teachers don’t live in the district, so their children may already be back in school. Plus, he had heard that some union officials were lobbying not to return until next fall.

“It’s difficult to explain why a schoolteacher’s child is back at school, but your child is not,” Arias said.

Parent Involvement Growing

The parents that Arias has been hearing from include Marcelino Valdez Jr., who recently started a private Facebook group, Parents for Re-Opening Fresno Unified.

Valdez, who has three children enrolled in Fresno Unified schools, said he heard about nearby districts resuming in-person instruction and wanted to know why that wasn’t also happening in Fresno Unified.

He learned about the district’s side letter with the teachers union, which he said occurred when the county had skyrocketing infection rates and no vaccine in sight. But in less than two months, much has changed, and the district needs to take that into consideration and renegotiate the agreement, Valdez said.

Time is of the essence, he said. “Here’s what I’ve been telling parents, this has to happen before the March 10 next school board meeting. Because after that, we’re getting close to the Easter break. After Easter break in the fourth quarter, you’re going to have finals for seniors and all these different things. You’re getting to the point where it’s too late, it doesn’t make sense to reopen.

“I think if we have any meaningful chance of reopening, it has to be done when we return for Easter break.”

Nelson, Bonilla, and Fresno Unified board President Valerie Davis could not be immediately reached for comment Friday morning.

Nancy Price is a multimedia journalist for GV Wire. A longtime reporter and editor who has worked for newspapers in California, Florida, Alaska, Illinois and Kansas, Nancy joined GV Wire in July 2019. She previously worked as an assistant metro editor for 13 years at The Fresno Bee. Nancy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her hobbies include singing with the Fresno Master Chorale and volunteering with Fresno Filmworks. You can reach Nancy at 559-492-4087 or Send an Email