Following strike, Ohio school districts’ new contract includes COVID-19 specific language

A Gahanna-Jefferson Education Association teacher opted to arrive in costume for the first day of a strike outside Gahanna Lincoln High School. By Jake Zuckerman.

Teachers at one Ohio school returned to lessons this week after days of striking ended in a new contract, complete with specific COVID-19 language.

Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools’ teachers union went on strike last week after contract negotiations with the district failed, partly due to an impasse on COVID-19 safety protocols.

The one-year contract, obtained from the district through a public records request, includes a 2.5% wage increase, but also an entire appendix explaining learning models amid COVID-19, creating a “COVID-19 Concern Committee,” and laying out health and safety provisions for the 2020-21 contract year.

Sunday night, after the Gahanna-Jefferson Education Association approved the new contract, spokesperson Betsy Baker said teachers would be back in the building Monday (yesterday), but digital learning would continue until next week.

“We’re in that position where we’re celebrating the fact that we do get to go back with our students,” Baker said.

Baker did not have the exact vote numbers from the socially-distanced “drive-through” voting process that happened Sunday afternoon, but said that 98.3% of the members who voted approved of the contract.

The school district’s board of education approved the contract in a special meeting Sunday evening, immediately following the teachers’ union meeting.

Superintendent Steve Barrett said he was pleased with the resolution and ready to get back to school.

“The last few weeks have been challenging, and we deeply regret the disruptions that were created in our school community,” Barrett said in a statement after negotiations concluded.

In order to address concerns over personal protection equipment (PPE), such as face shields and disinfectant, the district agreed in the contract to create a documentation process for individuals to “report potential deficiencies in PPE supply and areas that are not being cleaned/sanitized.”

“If fewer than a 10-day supply of PPE is available, then the teacher will utilize the established mechanism above to report the deficiency of supply as soon as possible, but with at least five workdays notice that a supply is running low and requires replenishment,” according to the contract.

If PPE can’t be provided, the district agreed to close the space. 

Teachers are not required to help with sanitizing playground equipment, auditoriums, gymnasiums or other common areas, but could be assigned to sanitize lunch tables or classrooms if their time allowed.

“Upon request, teachers assigned to work with students who are unable to maintain the appropriate social distancing requirements shall have district-provided additional PPE such as face shields, gloves, gowns, etc.,” the contract states.

The union will also create a “COVID leave pool,” which can be used by employees after proof of a medical professional’s diagnosis of COVID-19-related symptoms or confirmed case. A medical recommendation of quarantine or isolation due to potential COVID-19 contact also qualifies for the leave pool.

Employees can also request leave through the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

The concern committee “will be formed for the purpose of communicating COVID-19 related concerns and recommended solutions to the administration,” the agreement stated. 

One member from each school district building and three administrators will be selected to serve on the committee, as chosen by the teachers union. The committee is charged with meeting weekly, “unless a safety-related issue arises,” according to the contract.

On Oct. 26, students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade and high school grades can begin a hybrid model of learning — partially in-person, partially virtual — but middle schoolers can stay 100% online until Nov. 2 “to allow for schedule changes,” according to the district.

The Gahanna teachers weren’t the only group of Ohio educators to speak out in concern for COVID-19 safety. While she didn’t threaten strike, Pickerington Education Association president Heather Tinsley released a statement last week outlining concerns presented to the school board.

“We insist on transparency and prompt communication from the Board regarding the guidance they are using and the data they are considering that makes them believe PLSD (is) in a position to fully reopen our school buildings,” Tinsley wrote.

At Fairborn City Schools, district officials initially accused bus drivers in that district of conducting an unauthorized strike after 22 drivers called in sick in one day. The State Employment Relations Board held an emergency meeting late last week on the matter, but the district withdrew the complaint before the board could make a decision.

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