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San Pedro Teachers Gather Nearly 800 Signatures on Open Letter Rebuking Joe Buscaino for Suing LAUSD to Reopen

The Council Member’s lawsuit was met with widespread derision among educators, students, and parents.

Joe Buscaino at City Council Meeting on October 28, 2020.

“I’m so tired of checking the news to see if I should write a will. It’s been almost a year of ‘oh are you guys going to try to kill us?’”

Maya Suzuki Daniels teaches English at San Pedro High School (SPHS). She woke up Friday morning angry, because on Thursday, Councilmember Joe Buscaino (CD-15) announced that he would ask the City to file a lawsuit forcing Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) campuses to reopen for in-person instruction.

Suzuki Daniels, who also serves as United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) Chapter Co-Chair at SPHS, quickly drafted an open letter in opposition, and she and her union colleagues began circulating it within their local education networks. Hundreds of signatures poured in throughout the day, and by the end of the weekend, nearly 800 people had signed on, including over 300 teachers, over 100 parents, over 50 students and alumni, and seven principals. The signatories represented over 50 schools, 40 of which are in Buscaino’s district, amounting to a swift rebuke of what is being widely seen as a political stunt by the Council Member.

Recent announcements by the federal government, including the CDC and President Biden, indicate new guidance will be announced this week that would allow most K-12 schools to reopen in the coming months. Buscaino agrees with Biden and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky that schools should reopen for in-person instruction even before teachers and staff are vaccinated against COVID-19. This position is in conflict with the State’s guidelines, which do not allow for schools to reopen until community spread declines from current levels. Notably, Buscaino’s wife is a teacher at LAUSD, and his children attend district schools.

Suzuki Daniels says that teachers are used to battling the district. “When we went on strike two years ago it’s fresh in everyone’s memories,” she said, referring to the 2019 teachers’ strike. “We’re used to fighting the district for supplies, we’re used to fighting for a fair contract, and we’re used to being adversaries.”

Part of the push to quickly reopen schools comes from a misconception of what a 2021 classroom will look like. “When everybody talks about going back to school, they’re picturing 2019, not 2021,” Suzuki Daniels said, referring to the current CDC guidelines for reopening schools. “People don’t understand that even when we reopen, we’re still in distance learning.” She is critical of the hybrid learning model, in which teachers conduct classes via Zoom while sitting in the classroom with a small number of students. “Everything that makes school pleasant, from group projects to your teacher getting up to help you, to talking to your friends” is absent under this model of learning.

LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner responded vocally against Buscaino’s gambit, calling it a “grandstanding political stunt.” Tyler Chavez-Feipel, a special education teacher and UTLA Chapter co-chair at San Pedro High, is pleased with Beutner’s response. He sees Buscaino’s move as performative political theater and is surprised by his political calculation to align himself with “the likes of [Mayor] Lori Lightfoot in Chicago and [Senator] Marco Rubio in Florida,” who have also called for reopening schools. Chavez-Feipel, who teaches students with moderate to severe disabilities, cited research that shows they are at increased risk of infection and death from the coronavirus.

On the same day Buscaino announced plans to sue the district to reopen schools before teachers are vaccinated, he appeared before Congress urging legislators to prioritize vaccinating dock workers, many of whom work in his district at the Port of Los Angeles. “The irony is he was pushing for longshoremen to get the vaccine, which they should, they’re frontline workers, instead of advocating for us to get vaccines and PPE to open safely. He’s doing the opposite and threatening the district which trickles down to all of us,” Chave-Feipel said.

Ultimately, the sentiment among educators is one of exhaustion with being used as poker chips in the games of politicians, and not just during the pandemic, Suzuki Daniels explained. “The kids are adaptable, the teachers are doing their best to be resilient, but no one ever supports the teachers and schools. In this situation, where we need that support more than ever before, to have to fight these types of battles is crushing.”

The open letter was sent to Buscaino’s office on Monday morning, and its organizers are encouraging constituents to call his office at 310–732–4515 in opposition to his lawsuit.