Central Ohio school threatens strike over COVID-19 safety

12 year old girl wearing a reusable, protective face mask in classroom while working on school work at her desk. Photo from Getty Images.

Fears about teachers and school safety have taken one Ohio teacher’s union to the brink of strike.

The Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools Education Association said they have filed a “Notice of Intent to Strike and Picket” with the State Employment Relations Board on Oct. 2, with a potential 10-day strike, starting Oct. 13. The GJEA is in the midst of negotiations with the school on a new collective bargaining agreement.

“At issue is a disagreement over how to safely return students to in-person learning in an equitable manner that will set-up all students for success,” the teachers’ union said in a statement announcing the filing.

The district was set to go to a hybrid model of remote and in-person learning on Oct. 13, the same date of the potential strike.

Gahanna-Jefferson Superintendent Steve Barrett wrote to district families on Sunday seeking to “correct some misunderstandings” about the ongoing collective bargaining fight. He said the district planned to meet with the union’s bargaining time “several times” in the next week “to offer a compromise proposal in which teachers live stream to a greatly reduced number of students.”

“We have listened to the union bargaining team, but thus far we have received no written proposals from them in over 70 hours of negotiations,” Barrett wrote. “We hope they will be open to this proposed compromise and working with us toward a solution.”

A spokesperson for the GJEA said the concept of live-streaming “could be exactly what forces Gahanna-Jefferson teachers out of their classrooms on Oct. 13.”

“The district said it wants to find a solution to meet the needs of our students,” said GJEA spokesperson Betsy Baker. “There’s no reason to wait. The GJEA is prepared to immediately consider any proposals that protect student and staff safety, provide an equitable learning environment, regardless of chosen educational model, and set students up for success.”

Few schools across the state have reported more than a handful of COVID-19 cases, but Franklin County has seen a few spikes. In the Ohio Department of Health’s latest report of cases in schools, South-Western City School District was listed with 10 new student cases in the week preceding the report, and a total of 20 student cases since reporting began at the beginning of September.

Dublin City Schools picked up five more cases in their most recent report, with a total of 15 student cases.

The state has also seen low numbers of staff cases reported, with the exception of Cincinnati Public Schools, which had a total of 12 cases among their staff, according to ODH data.

Franklin County is at the top of the list of Ohio counties with cases found in children. As of Monday, the county had a total of 2,269 cases in children younger than 18, of a statewide total of 10,499 cases.

Barrett sought to assure parents that the teachers remain under the current contract until a new contract is negotiated. He said learning models were discuss with teachers and “curriculum leaders since summer,” including with a 70-teacher task force. He also said the school district had what they needed to create a safe school environment.

“Our schools are fully stocked with PPE (personal protective equipment), and we have health and safety protocols approved by Franklin County Public Health,” Barrett wrote on Sunday.

Negotiations were ongoing at the end of September, and the union accused the district of setting up a learning model that disenfranchised some students and did not create a level playing field.

“Of course we don’t want to strike, but our students, teachers and community deserve a contract that keeps our kids safe, provides them with equitable learning conditions, and sets them up for success,” Baker said in a statement released after the union voted to authorize the strike notice.

Barrett said returning to school on October 13 would be “impossible” if the teachers union did not agree to a compromise.

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