Teachers Just Say No To Unsafe School Openings

Gwynne Ann Unruh
7 min read
Amy Biehl cafeteria
On the bright side, the cafeteria hasn’t remained this immaculate in years! (Clarke Condé)
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Across the country teachers are refusing to accept “It is what it is”—an expression that is used to characterize a frustrating or challenging situation that a person believes cannot be changed and must just be accepted. On July 23 New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that all schools will need to be exclusively online until at least Labor Day. The Albuquerque Teachers Federation has just passed a motion that New Mexico kids spend the “entire first semester of ’20/’21 school year” learning in front of a laptop. Teachers’ unions across the country are prepared to strike if their concerns about their safety and the students they instruct are not addressed.

Unions that represent over three million teachers in every state in the nation are calling for safety strikes as a last resort if school reopening plans don’t meet the demands for keeping educators healthy and safe during the coronavirus pandemic. Based on results of a survey they conducted, the Albuquerque Federation of Teachers union just passed a motion to extend remote learning until at least the end of the first semester of the ’20 to ’21 school year.

Due to a number of concerns by Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) educators about the logistics and safety, the Albuquerque Federation of Teachers union conducted a survey focused on the Hybrid Learning Model that was open to all APS licensed employees. Almost 4,000 educators within their bargaining unit responded. Based on the Federations’ survey—results showed 134 school sites voted in favor of online learning (94.4 percent), 8 voted against (5.6 percent)—the members of their bargaining unit that responded do not think it is safe to return to in-person, hybrid learning any time soon.

The survey results showed over 40 percent of licensed educators responding prefer to work from home (with an additional 27.8 percent selecting “maybe”); 1250 educators (over 25 percent of those that answered) have high-risk conditions, many of which will not be covered by Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations; over 1150 educators responding live with someone who has a high-risk condition; 3 percent of educators indicated they would be willing to return to the classroom if required, however over 12 percent of those who responded (447 employees) indicated they would retire, resign or go on unpaid leave instead. Another 19 percent said they were uncertain about what their career choice would be. Only 14 percent of respondents are ready to return to in-person schooling right now; 78.1 percent of educators think the Hybrid Model will not work or that there are serious issues.

The Albuquerque Federation said they cannot continue to plan for two different worlds: Remote Learning and Hybrid Learning; rather they need to go all-in one way or the other to create the stability needed for educators, staff and parents. The union said while they would prefer to be in the classroom, “Educators must be able to plan for our students and make plans to care for our own children. Parents and students need to be able to plan for where children will study and where they will spend their time when not in class.”

Albuquerque Public Schools has committed to providing one technology device to each student for remote learning during the pandemic and began checking out technology devices to all students in early August. Most students will receive Chromebooks, though some of the district’s youngest students, special education students and English language learners may receive iPads. For parents with cars, there are over 50 locations scattered around the city with marked signage where they can park to have their children log in to wireless internet.

New Mexico rural school districts continue to struggle with internet access as online classes begin. COVID-19 has laid bare the nature of the inequalities with regard to home access to technology. Children who lack the internet and computers now also lack access to education. Kids in low-income families were most likely to be left out of remote learning.

According to a 2016 report by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), more than 430,000 people in New Mexico—roughly 20 percent of the overall population and more than half of the state’s rural population, including most of the people living on tribal lands—lacked access to the level of advanced telecommunications capability or good internet service to do things such as video conferencing.

Unions are demonstrating they are prepared to play hardball to ensure that teachers, students and support staff are safe during the pandemic. The McKinley County Federation of United School Employees, Local #3313 AFT-NM (the “Union”), has filed an action seeking injunctive relief to prevent the Gallup-McKinley County School District from actively and willfully violating the school reopening procedures identified by the New Mexico Public Education Department. The action alleges, in addition to displaying an appalling lack of leadership, GMCS Superintendent Mike Hyatt has deliberately violated the New Mexico Public Education Department’s directive on COVID-19 safe practices. The Union has asked for an emergency hearing to bring Superintendent Hyatt’s actions “within the limitations of the law, safe pandemic work practices and simple common sense.”

New Trump administration guidance that states teachers should be considered “critical infrastructure workers” and can be sent into classrooms after being exposed to COVID-19 without a quarantine period has teachers’ unions across the nation up in arms because of how dangerous the guidance is to students, educators and their families.

The National Education Association (NEA) President Eskelsen García said, “No one should listen to Trump or DeVos on reopening schools. As the largest labor union and professional interest group in the United States, NEA is committed to ensuring the health and safety of its members and students during COVID-19.” Garcia believes there are ways to mitigate risks; but it will be costly, and she advocates not opening an unsafe school. She said educators are prepared to do “whatever it takes.”

“Nobody wants to see students back in the classroom more than educators,” Garcia said in a public statement. “But when it comes to their safety, we’re not ready to take any options off the table.” Garcia has gone so far as to dare “Trump to sit in a class of 39 sixth graders and breathe that air without any preparation for how we’re going to bring our kids back safely.”

After the Trump administration’s guidance declaring teachers as essential workers, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten stated, “The Trump administration will always try to change the rules to threaten, bully and coerce. If the president really saw us as essential, he’d act like it. Teachers are and always have been essential workers—but not essential enough, it seems, for the Trump administration to commit the resources necessary to keep them safe in the classroom.” The Federation says school buildings should open only in places where the average daily community infection rate among those tested for COVID-19 is below 5 percent and the transmission rate is below 1 percent.

NEA President Garcia said that the essential workers designation “has no legal merit and is more of a rhetorical gambit to give President Trump and those governors who are disregarding the advice and guidance from public health experts an excuse to force educators into unsafe schools.”

AFT President Weingarten summed up the response to unsafe opening of schools we can expect from the teachers and their union representatives. “If authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve … nothing is off the table," she warned. "Not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits or, if necessary and authorized by a local union as a last resort, safety strikes."
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