Interview transcript: Alison Collins

This is a transcript of an interview with “Civic” host Laura Wenus and school board member Alison Collins, part of our February 2022 nonpartisan election guide.Though “Civic” will broadcast only nine minutes of each commissioner’s interview to give each equal airtime on our program, we are making transcripts of the full conversations available. These transcripts have been edited for clarity.  

Alison Collins was elected to the Board of Education in November 2018.  

Laura Wenus 

I’ve been asking everybody about the coronavirus situation, just because of this huge record-breaking spike in cases that we just saw, it seems that wave has thankfully crested. But it does seem that we haven’t seen the end of COVID in general, and that it is inevitably going to affect school safety practices. We are in a very different place now than we were in, say, summer of last year. You know, we have widespread vaccination now, the district and teachers have a safety agreement in place. Let’s say that we do have another surge, or COVID gets a lot better — the cases just drop a lot and things are more safe now in schools. How do you intend to approach fluctuations in case counts and safety risk if you stay on the board? 

Alison Collins 

Well, I think the number one thing is we need to start with a plan. We can see COVID outbreaks and surges and learn a lot from how other school districts are dealing with them. And if you may remember, we saw delta coming. And due to that, I had parents reach out to me and President Lopez, and we wrote a resolution. And it was the Roadmap to COVID Recovery Resolution, and the goal of it, the primary goal, was to make a plan. Because what I had seen was, in the fall of 2020 —before we had vaccines and we were trying to reopen schools — one of the areas of safety measures that kept coming up was the need for high quality ventilation. And so, I advocated for us to improve our ventilation in our schools. And, unfortunately, not all folks felt like it was a priority. And as a district, we needed support in doing that.  

And then when the forest fires came, and we had a delta surge, and we had conflicting health guidance — one of which said, open the windows for COVID and the other of which said, close the windows for poor air quality — we were seeing teachers felt like they needed to buy their own air purifiers in order to go back into the classroom. And I heard calls from parents who have children with asthma who were excited to go back and now worried that it would be safe. And so, as a result, we wrote this resolution to say we need to get ahead of this, and we need to stop playing whack-a-mole and create plans that do exactly what you’re asking, that are flexible and account for the fact that we need to live with COVID, whether we like it or not. We need our kids to be in school. But in order for that to happen consistently and without interruption, we need to have more of a long view. And so, when I started hearing about omicron — we were the first city in the country to record a case of omicron — we should have been more prepared. I’m on Twitter. I communicate regularly with educators across the country, and in New York, they were still in school the week before Christmas. And I was seeing kind of on the ground reports about their overwhelm in the city. And, they’re just deluged with cases and having trouble keeping up with contact tracing and things like that. And also seeing just how transmissible it was, and the need for high quality masks and things like that.  

You know, so I called on the superintendent to have an emergency meeting, before we reopened, and unfortunately, he didn’t respond. But we’ve seen locally, other school districts did respond. They planned ahead. Marin and Alameda handed out take home tests before the break. So, we have learned a lot. We can learn from other districts who are doing it better. And I will continue to advocate. We need a plan for managing these things that’s flexible and accounts for potential surges in the future. And at the very least, the more safety measures that we can put in place, I think the more consistency we can guarantee: If we had regular weekly testing, like Los Angeles had already put in place in September, we wouldn’t be scrambling in January and making families wait in two-hour lines to get tested. 

So, I’ve always advocated for this, and it’s on the record — as of November of 2020, I believe — that the more prepared we can be, the better. And so within reason, the more safety measures that we can establish, the more safe we make our schools feel for our educators and for communities that maybe have more concerns than others, right? We want all of our kids in school, and right now I’m hearing that only half of a class or a third of the class have been in school. And some of that isn’t even COVID rates — it’s just fear. And so, in order to reassure our community, and in order to assure our staff that we are doing everything we can to honor their service, I think more is better, and especially now. And we see this even in the business community. They’re taking precautions, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable, and we need help, too, as well. We’re not in this alone. We need support from the city, support from the state and the federal government and the community at large. And they have shown up, recently, which I think is great, but they can’t do that without a plan. And that is incumbent on our staff to create plans for how it could or might work, and then it’s up to us as a board to advocate for the resources necessary to implement that plan. 

Laura Wenus  

You mentioned fear. Can you talk a bit about what you’re hearing from students, teachers and parents about being back in school right now, and how you’ll be factoring that into the policies you want to advance at the school board going forward? 

Alison Collins  

Well, I do think it’s really important to listen to parents and students and staff. And my time has really been taken up — in the last few weeks, I’ve been deluged with emails. Students recently started reaching out. And one thing that stands out for them is that, especially, they’re high schoolers that are reaching out, and they’re emailing me, and they’re telling me that they really suffered during remote learning. They really are happy to be back in school with their friends. And at the same time, they are scared. They are consistently exposed to close contacts. They feel fearful that they might bring home the virus to other family members, their grandparents, their baby sister or brother. And so they’re kind of living in a state of anxiety while they’re trying to get their education. And we heard this from student delegates on the board as well, who did an amazing job of serving their peers across the district. And they also said that, and one of them even had to stay home — was quarantined due to COVID. So she was expressing, just in her own personal experience, what I’m hearing across the district, which is kids, especially at the high school level, rely on in person learning. And if they’re not in school, it doesn’t just hurt their education. If they miss credits, that impacts their ability to go to a good college, or graduate on time. And they’re worried. So they’re actually juggling, I think, a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to juggle. And it really breaks my heart. So I did reach out to the student delegates. And I feel like, even if we have very high vaccination rates for high schoolers — so that is reassuring, but — this surge is still impacting their ability to learn. And so we need to listen to them. And we need to elevate their voices and figure out how we can support them through this time. And so we’ve been discussing ways to hold maybe a student townhall, or I’ve been just sharing their story where students give permission. But as adults, we really need to listen to them and support them in getting an education, you know, with all this that’s going on. 

Laura Wenus   

Yeah. It seemed like throughout this conversation about school reopening, regardless of what people were saying should be done with regard to reopening schools or keeping schools open, everyone was voicing concerns about the impact on the most marginalized students in the district. If you remain on the board, what policies and practices will you be advancing in order to serve and support those students? 

Alison Collins   

Well, I think primarily, kids need to be in school, and what we’re seeing from attendance data, and I hope the media really continues to ask these questions about who’s going to school. Because in the elementary grades, we’re seeing really high rates of absenteeism, either because kids are at home due to exposure to COVID, or as I said, their parents have been keeping them home. And so we need to make the school safe, so that we can get as many kids back. And then for those that choose remote learning, we need to make sure that that is quality instruction, because otherwise, kids with asthma that may not be safe enough to go to school, they’re missing out on a year of learning, because remote instruction is not as robust as it was last year, so we need to make that better.  

But one of the resolutions that I’m very excited about, and it’s taken a while because of all the disruptions due to COVID, is a literacy resolution. And members of our parent community — and specifically, I want to give a shout out to the Special Education Community Advisory Committee — have repeatedly come to the board, year after year, and said they wanted our district to really assess how we do early reading instruction, and also how we assess student reading, so that we can catch students who are struggling with reading before it becomes a really big problem. And I’ll just tell you, I’ve heard so many stories from parents who have bright, excited children who, because of difficulties with reading, and because of our, in some cases, inability to assess those difficulties, they’ve fallen behind. It’s a lot harder to support students with reading, once they’ve gotten far behind. It’s a lot harder to do that, then actually nip it in the bud, or also just implement certain reading practices that benefit all kids. So, there’s a lot of different ideas about how to do that best, but we need to actually have that conversation and revisit it. And so this resolution basically convenes a group of educators, both in special education, reading teachers, literacy experts, and also classroom teachers to really look at our curriculum, our assessments and also classroom practices. Which, honestly, is another big one in the sense that we need to know what is actually happening in kindergarten, first grade, second grade classrooms, and what practices are effective, and what practices are ineffective. You know, that’s a conversation that we haven’t really had on this scale. And I know parents have been fighting for a very long time, and I’m so excited that it will finally be coming before the board for approval. And as a district, we can start to address those issues. So that’ll have a number one impact for young kids.  

And then I’d also like to just put another plug in for the work we’ve been doing around curriculum. I wrote an equity audit — I mean, I’m sorry, an equity resolution. And the focus is really making sure that our curriculum reflects our students’ heritage and the diversity of cultures in our classroom, and make sure that kids have a sense of self knowledge and self-love. They have a sense of understanding and solidarity for their fellow students, and that they don’t have to wait until high school. Ethnic studies is a really wonderful program that we have really taken the lead as a district in our state. But kids have had to wait until high school to get curriculum that really celebrates their culture and where they can learn about a more broad picture of American history, and so the equity studies work is very important as well. 

Laura Wenus 

I want to switch gears a bit and talk about budgeting. The board had to make a very difficult decision at the end of last year about the budget and closing a pretty sizable deficit or face state takeover of the budgeting process. In the end there were two competing budget proposals: One that the district had worked out for some time and a more recent one put forward by two board members. The district plan made more cuts to classrooms, while the two board members’ plan tried to concentrate cuts in administration and in central offices. Which one did you support? 

Alison Collins   

I believe that as a district, we need to put as many of our resources towards the classroom as possible. And that has been a consistent refrain, I think, from all of us on the board. So this isn’t a new conversation, although I think in some cases, it’s being framed as new. If you remember, at the beginning of last year, we all passed a resolution to really focus on that. And several years prior, when I was first elected, there was another resolution put forward by my colleagues. And for some reason as a district, I think our central office staff has had a problem — it just, I think, it’s hard — as Commissioner Alexander said, trimming itself down. We compared to other districts: We spend more money on central office, administration. And, while we do very innovative work, and a lot of that work does require more investment, like some of the curricular work that I was talking about. Especially now, when we have schools that are really in crisis, and specifically schools serving low income, immigrant, and Indigenous and Black and people of color communities. They need really basic staffing resources. They need nurses and social workers and teachers. And so, I think, as much as we can assess the work that’s going on in central office that we’re funding and find ways to reallocate dollars where we can to the classroom, that is my priority.  

Laura Wenus  

You sort of went ahead and answered the question I was gonna ask next, which is about what your priorities are going forward. But which of the two plans did you end up supporting? 

Alison Collins   

Well, number one, I voted with the districts. ’The staff presented a proposal that met the requirements of the state advisor. And I was working — it was a while back in Oakland with, actually, superintendent Matthews when he was a state administrator there — so I was working with the district and, not in that capacity, but I saw the impacts that it has on the ability of a district to function. And without a functional board, the school board there had no voice, basically, because it was being, in a sense, being run by the state. So local control is very important to me, because we all, even if we disagree, we all represent the voice of the communities that we serve. And so I think, number one, I need to make sure that I’m representing that voice. And so I voted to approve the proposal that was presented by the staff. But I am committed to working to ensure that we cut central spending that is unnecessary. And I’ll tell you that I have been concerned because, even this fall, I had to request — you know, there are a lot of grants right now, coming from the state and the federal government to support schools and dealing with the crisis. And I had to ask multiple times to get reports on what grants were available. And there are hundreds of millions of dollars available to support us. And even if it’s on a short-term basis, we need to get everything that we can. And I was kind of shocked to realize that our staff had only applied to about six out of 25 of the grants — this is in the fall — that were available. And I was also surprised to find that we hadn’t applied for a FEMA grant to reimburse our district for testing. And so I think it’s our job as board members to ask tough questions and find money. And I think, as a system, we have a lot of money in our district that if we’re in a fiscal crisis, we need to make sure that every dollar is going, in as much as we can, towards the classroom.  

And there have been instances when —  when I first joined the board, I was the budget chair and there was an instance where there was unspent dollars, about over a million unspent dollars that we discovered in the PEEF budget, and we were able to reallocate it towards social workers. So, I think it’s important that we have a board that is doing its due diligence and getting into the weeds and asking for reports and, and all, making all of this transparent to the public. And that has not always been easy to get information from our staff about how our dollars are being spent. So I think that’s an area where we definitely can improve, and we can learn from other districts. 

Laura Wenus   

We are well over time, so I have to keep this short. But: I do also have to ask about the lawsuit that you filed against the district a while back. There’s sort of a long story leading up to this, and a lot has been said about it. But ultimately, the case was dismissed and you dropped it. It looks like you told KQED that you wanted to focus on meeting the needs of families when school started. Since we’re trying to look ahead, let me put it to you this way: Can you see a scenario in which you would file suit again?  

Alison Collins   

I filed a lawsuit to protect my family, and also to protect my work. And the court reaffirmed my right to serve on the school board. And it’s very clear to me now, with continued attacks that we see from some members of our community on the work that we’re doing with the equity audit. The equity audit was an aspect of the Lowell resolution that I would love to see more coverage on. The purpose of that resolution is to really do an accurate accounting of our students’ experiences in schools in regards to racism. And we see it specifically when we hear of these controversial issue incidents that happen at Lowell, but we also are interested in looking at anti-Asian racism and other experiences that kids are having in school. And there are a group of community members that have been very vocal about their wanting to dismantle Black studies, ethnic studies, they have expressed anti-CRT viewpoints. And they have been actively trying to remove members, even community members, from this Equity Audit Committee and discredit the work that they’re doing. And so it’s important for me to be on the board in order to ensure that the work keeps moving forward, because with this, the sentiment that we’re seeing nationally, and unfortunately we also see in our city, it’s important that we move forward and we address racism in our school and make sure that all of our kids aren’t just safe from COVID, but they’re also safe culturally. And that has been an ongoing, as people have said, an ongoing pandemic that also needs to be addressed. And so it demonstrates the importance and the urgency of the work.  

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