‘Safety strikes’ threat raises pressure on superintendents making reopening calls

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Dive Brief:

  • American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said Tuesday in her remarks during the union’s biennial convention that the organization would support local teacher strikes in response to schools reopening without meeting health and safety guidelines.
  • If teachers and those they serve are not protected, she said, “nothing is off the table — not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes.”
  • Potential union pushback adds to the pressure facing district administrators as they navigate increasing calls from the federal government, and in some cases states, to reopen, as well as dealing with communities divided over in-person instruction in the fall.

Dive Insight:

The move to support strikes has superintendents “very concerned,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association, “but we understand where that’s coming from.”

Most districts, Domenech said, have conducted teacher surveys, and, in most cases, greater than half of the teachers responded they don’t want to return to the classroom in person until “the situation is safe.” 

The key for superintendents, for the most part, has been to prioritize reopening safely. But in places where cases of COVID-19 are on the rise, that priority has been at odds with the Trump administration’s push to reopen in fall. Domenech believes the federal government’s position on the issue has “backfired” and “hurt” the dilemma superintendents are facing, because it has made many teachers more boldly resist reopening. 

On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Education said in a statement to Education Dive that “no one is advocating for teachers to be unsafe.” 

Let’s not pretend that Ms. Weingarten’s threat to strike has anything to do with the safety or children or the public,” department spokesperson Angela Morabito said. “If the unions were really concerned about doing what’s best for students and teachers, they’d be focused on what they need to do to be a partner in reopening schools safely.”

According to Domenech, superintendents have been attempting to work with teacher unions, even in right-to-work states, to include them in reopening discussions as fall approaches. But, if a school is forced to reopen before conditions are deemed safe and teachers choose to strike, there’s “not much that a superintendent can do” other than make the conditions as safe as possible upon return, he said. 

If teachers choose to stay home, schools may have to go all-virtual. Introducing substitutes, which would be the usual resort, would be unsafe due to the pandemic, Domenech suggested.

Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said even though his state is a no-strike state, the possibility of hurting teachers by reopening at the wrong time greatly concerns superintendents. “We’re required to open up, so if 75% of my students are coming in, and I don’t have the right match with my teachers — what do I do?” he said. “We don’t have an answer to that question.” 

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