Afraid But United, Arizona Teachers Stage Sickout to Stop Reopening

arizona teacher sickoutEditor’s note: In the face of continued, united opposition by educators, on August 19, J.O. Combs school board members voted 4-1 to reverse their previous decision to open schools. Instead, educators will provide virtual learning to students until at least August 27, when school officials will re-evaluate health and safety indicators.

Arizona teacher Dave Nelson was stunned when school board members in the J.O. Combs Unified School District voted 3-2 last week to order educators and students back into schools this week, against the recommendation of state health officials.

Teachers didn’t have adequate PPE or sanitizing supplies. They had no idea how many students would be in their classrooms. Many educators in this small, rural district have medical health concerns, or their spouses, children or parents have health concerns, and they fear Arizona is nowhere near having its COVID-19 pandemic under control.

The state is reporting about 900 new COVID-19 cases a day as the number of cases in the state nears 200,000 and deaths near 4,600. Statewide, the percentage of COVID-19 test-takers who test positive is about 10 percent, higher than the national average of 6.5 percent and much higher than its neighbors in New Mexico (2.5 percent) and Utah (8.6 percent.)

“Our belief is that it’s not safe. These are minimal standards to reduce the risk of exposure,” says Nelson, of the state metrics around reopening.

With help from the Arizona Education Association, last week Combs teachers met, talked into the night over Zoom, and decided they simply couldn’t risk the lives of their family members and students by rushing into in-person education.

Last week, they began informing administrators that they wouldn’t be at work on Monday—instead they’d be using medical leave or expanded family and medical leave provided by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).

With a “sickout” in place, district officials had no choice but to cancel classes on Monday.

And Tuesday. And today, on Wednesday.

What’s next isn’t clear. Nelson, who also is president of the NEA-affiliated J.O. Combs Education Association, hopes that educators, parents and administrators can work together on a plan that relies on remote learning until it’s safer for students and educators to return to classrooms.

“There are legitimate challenges with remote learning, but I would rather deal with those than the fear of who’s sick and who’s on a ventilator,” says Nelson.

Get the Details Right First

From the pandemic’s start, NEA leaders have said that schools should reopen when it’s safe, and that school officials must rely on the advice of health experts to make those decisions. “Educators and parents want nothing more than to return to in-person instruction,” says NEA President Lily Eskelsen García.

Instead, politicians in mostly red states have made it a political issue. While President Trump demands schools reopen, Florida’s governor has threatened to withhold funding for school districts that say it isn’t safe.

Meanwhile, the Trump/DeVos administration hasn’t provided any guidance around reopening, Eskelsen García notes, “Students and educators are being threatened and forced to return to unsafe school buildings, school districts are scrambling with contingency plans, and stressed-out parents are left in limbo… Educators believe they are viewed as expendable, and they feel forced to choose between their jobs or the health of themselves and their loved ones.”

Although J.O. Combs school board members said they were reopening schools because parents wanted schools open, this week many parents said they appreciated how teachers are taking a stand for community safety.

Parent Lila Gonzalez has two students, a kindergarten and seventh grader. “I didn’t even know [reopening in-person] was on the table!” she says.

Gonzalez, a nursing student who previously taught, says she appreciates teachers’ questions about safety protocols. For example, how is lunch going to work? Where are the sanitizing stations and how often will they be used? “Every little detail matters here,” she says. “I would like for them to hold off a little bit, at least until September, to figure this out.”

She adds, “This is not about teachers not wanting to go back. They want to be safe—safe for themselves, safe for their families, and most of all, their students. They want clear guidelines on keeping people safe.”

The bottom line is, “We shouldn’t be open if we haven’t met the state guidelines from the health department,” mother of three Heidi Swinney told the Arizona Republic.

Lives Are at Stake

Although schools are closed, teachers don’t feel like they’ve won anything, says Nelson. This is farthest thing from a win-win situation. With schools closed, students aren’t learning. But if schools open, people could die.

“It’s a s*@! sandwich,” he says. “The question is which end we bite.”

On Facebook and other social media, Nelson and his colleagues have been attacked as anti-American, as lazy, as unwilling to work, and worst of all, as uncaring about kids.

“It’s disheartening. It’s terrifying. And I don’t hate the other side. I don’t think most of us do. We just believe that we’re not ready. We’re not asking to stop anything, we’re asking to slow down and prepare better.”

Yes, many students are suffering while out of school, but educators will deal with those effects, he promises. “We have ways to deal with the social toll. We don’t have ways to deal with this virus,” says Nelson.

“I’m not happy about any of this. There’s nothing to dance in the streets about here,” he says. “We didn’t draw this line or take a stand to win something. We fought this because we truly believe lives are at stake.

“If you put one person in harm’s way, and you can avoid it? Then avoid it!”