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Local teachers unions ask school districts to step up support for teacher and student safety

People stand holding signs
Supporters of local teachers unions come out to demand greater school-safety standards in the Richmond region. (Photo: Ian Stewart/VPM News)

Teachers union leaders from Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond asked their school districts Monday to step up support for students and staff.

This comes as COVID-19 cases and teacher shortages continue to rise.

“The lack of consistent policies around masks, testing and closures puts lives at risk. Especially the lives of disabled, immunocompromised and vulnerable members of our community,” said Patrick Miller, president of the Henrico Education Association.

Miller was joined by Katina Harris and Christine Melendez of the Richmond and Chesterfield education associations. He said better safety protocols, such as providing students and staff more take-home COVID-19 tests and KN95 masks, will help keep schools open.

Harris said the three union leaders weren’t joining together to condemn their districts, but she expressed concern over executive actions taken by new Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“We're already facing an overall teacher shortage and an immediate staffing crisis,” Harris said,  “This decision to rescind the mask mandate will push many staff members over the edge and into neighboring districts or out of the profession.”

Prior to Monday’s press conference, Melendez and the CEA sent out an analysis of how many parents wanted to keep the mask mandate in Chesterfield schools. The figures were gathered and collated from 256 pages of online comments from a school board meeting held last week.

Out of the more than 2,000 comments, the CEA found that 1,728 wanted to keep the mask mandate in place while only 583 wanted to follow the governor’s executive order.

The union leaders also say complete virtual instruction should only be used as a last resort.

“No teacher, no administrator, no parent and no child is demanding all schools return to virtual learning,” Miller said. “Nor does anyone wish this for an entire school district. However, when hundreds of educators are home sick, orienting or caring for a sick family member, we cannot reasonably expect all learning to take place in person until there are enough healthy professionals capable of staffing our buildings.”

She outlined six ways things each district can do to keep students and staff safe during the current crisis. Those include “protecting high risk individuals better” and “improving transparency and awareness.” Harris said the districts must better communicate when someone has been exposed or is infected.

Harris also said each district needs to improve its efforts on contact tracing, step up testing and increase virtual opportunities to determine “when and where virtual learning needs to be utilized.”

Both Miller and Melendez said teachers should also have a choice as to whether to give up their planning periods to help with coverage “without repercussions or disciplinary action upon refusal.”

Miller said Virginia’s “Right to Work” status allows teachers to be exploited, forcing them to work in poor conditions.

“When scores of teachers are forced to give up their planning time to cover classes, poor working conditions for educators become poor learning conditions for children,” Miller said. “And when a despotic governor puts his political career above the health of his constituents, unsafe working conditions for educators become unsafe learning conditions for children.”

Miller added that all the districts should follow the example of Richmond, where the school board recently voted to allow teachers to collectively bargain.

“If we're serious about creating equitable working and learning conditions in our schools, then our health, safety and dignity will need to be legally protected,” Miller said. “Without these protections, all we can do now is demand freedom, the freedom to teach and learn in schools that are guided by health, safety and justice.”

For 44 years, state law banned collective bargaining for public-sector workers like school teachers. After winning majorities in the General Assembly in 2019, Democrats advanced legislation to strengthen workers rights, including one which lifted the long-standing ban when it came into effect in May.

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.