During Pandemic, Unions Continue to Advocate for Educators and Students

As COVID-19 continues to upend public education across the U.S., compelling teachers, faculty, education support professionals (ESPs), and other educators to provide online lessons, technical support, mobile food deliveries and more, NEA-affiliated local and state unions are making sure their members are supported and safe.

The pandemic has raised new, urgent workplace issues around pay and benefits, professional supports, and, most of all, the safety and well-being of students and staff, as well as their families and communities. In many places, local and state unions are sitting down to negotiate—sometimes formally, sometimes not—agreements that aim to protect and support students and educators. The power of a collective voice is as crucial today as ever.

“We live in extraordinary times. But we are in it together,” writes Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy, who has shared an evolving set of “common good” demands for public schools and colleges during the pandemic that include safety and wellbeing measures for students, educators, and communities. “As the largest union in New England, we needed to take a stand early in this crisis about what public education needs, and what the communities we live in need.”

“Do the Right Thing”

A pressing issue for many educators is pay. While many faculty and teachers have moved their classes online, not all employees can work while schools and campuses are closed. This is a concern especially for ESPs.

Illinois unions took on the pay issue last week. For several days, Illinois Education Association (IEA) leaders worked with school administrators, principals, and the state board of education to reach a series of agreements. While the state agreed to pay all school district employees, hourly and salaried, through March 30, educators pledged to provide online education and meals, as possible. IEA leaders praised the agreement, saying, “This will allow districts and educators to do what’s best for all students in our state, which is the ultimate end goal.”

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy (center).

In Iowa, the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) is urging all school districts to “do the right thing,” and commit to paying the wages of all school employees during the state’s planned, four-week school closure. Last week, 54 of Iowa’s 330 districts, including the state’s largest, Des Moines Public Schools, answered ISEA’s challenge with a public commitment to pay all employees. This week, the number hit 243. “Our support staff are at the low end of the pay scale—some of them are not earning a living wage—and to reduce that would create an economic crisis,” said ISEA President Mike Beranek.

Locals also are taking on this work through quickly bargained “memorandums of understanding” (MOUs), such as one by the Camas Education Association in Washington. It requires the Camas district to continue paying all employees, including extracurricular stipends, and including substitute teachers who committed to work affected by the closures.

In higher education, pay is a huge issue for adjunct or part-time faculty, who barely earn a living wage during the best of times. An agreement between the Massachusetts Community College Council (MCCC), whose members work at community colleges across the states, and the state’s board of higher education requires the board to pay “all part-time employees for the immediate, foreseeable future,” including part-time staff who can’t continue working.

A New Way of Teaching

Moving classes online, with just a few days to prepare, can be difficult and stressful for teachers and faculty who haven’t previously taught online. The stakes are high—students are depending on educators to make this work for the remaining months of the school year. With that in mind, local and state unions are bargaining for more support for their members.

Over the past week, California’s Community College Association has helped more than a half-dozen of its local affiliates sign “memorandums of understanding” (MOUs) that mandate support for faculty as they switch to online teaching.

Many require colleges to provide virtual trainings on course management systems, and to pay both the expert faculty who provide trainings and their colleagues who participate. At San Bernardino Community College, for example, administrators agreed to set aside one week for faculty to plan, prepare, and get trained in online teaching, and to compensate faculty trainers and participants.

CAVA teachers

Unions have been bargaining for more support for their members as they adjust to online teaching during the coronavirus pandemic.

In Hawaii, an agreement signed by the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) and the state superintendent last week provides for a week’s worth of preparation before teachers and students move, on March 30, to remote teaching and learning. During that week, between March 23 and 30, the state will provide online professional development, and teachers will meet online with principals and in smaller groups, like grade-level or subject-area teams, to plan.

“This is a trying event for all of our community,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee. “Let’s try to take care of each other, take care of our keiki, take care of our communities.”

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz also has agreed to a week’s worth of preparation, so that teachers and ESPs can figure out how to deliver online lessons, mental-health services, meals, and more. “No matter where we live or what we look like, we all want our kids to keep learning and growing through this difficult time,” said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota. “That can only happen if educators are given some time to use their training and experience to transform classroom lessons into distance learning. Gov. Walz is recognizing the complexity of the educators’ work with this preparedness period.”

A Top Concern: Safety

Nothing eclipses the importance of student and educator safety. With the number of people infected rising, it’s clear that students and educators are safest at home. That’s why, since last week, NEA has called for schools to be closed.

In Hawaii, state officials originally wanted teachers to report to school, even as students were sent home for their safety. HSTA called it a possible contract violation, and now its agreement makes clear that “nobody is required to report to work sites until the school closures are over and it’s been determined it’s safe to return,” says Andrea Eshelman, HSTA’s chief negotiator.

Meanwhile, in Vermont, teachers were surprised last week when Gov. Phil Scott announced that they would be providing childcare, in schools, to the children of “essential personnel,” like firefighters and police officers. Since then, Vermont-NEA has worked to make sure its members aren’t endangered.

This week, the state clarified participation would be voluntary, and that nobody would be required to put their health at risk. “I know many of you are eager to help our students and fellow working families during this growing pandemic—as long as it is safe for you to do so,” said Vermont-NEA President Don Tinney.

For employees who are still required to come to work, the MCCC agreement requires colleges to inform employees of any positive or presumptive cases of COVID at a college, and to provide additional, supplemental cleaning supplies.

School closures have revealed a host of other issues that unions are attempting to negotiate. Many of the newly bargained agreements hit pause on employee evaluations, and also any ongoing grievances. For faculty, some MOUs make clear that the new online classes belong to faculty—not their colleges. In the weeks ahead, as school closures persist, many more of these issues will be addressed by unions.