Teachers union backs strike if schools can’t reopen safely

Indiana’s second-largest teacher organization announced Tuesday that its members may resort to striking to ensure a safe return to school as the state continues to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The Indiana chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents around 4,500 teachers and education staff statewide, said schools should reopen for in-person instruction only if teachers and school staff are provided with adequate personal protective equipment, funding is provided for necessary safety resources such as masks and cleaning products, and cases in the community are under control. The union did not explain what an acceptable level of infection might be.

If those safeguards aren’t met, AFT Indiana President GlenEva Dunham said union members would consider a strike. A resolution passed by AFT’s national executive council indicates the union will back local or state-led teachers strikes relating to educator health and safety during the pandemic.

“The members of AFT Indiana will not be threatened or bullied into returning to situations that are not safe,” Dunham said. “Our lives and our children’s lives are at stake.”

She said the union is monitoring school reopenings day by day. Dozens of Indiana school districts have already reopened for in-person classes, or are planning to in the coming weeks, and Dunham said concerns remain about the precautions in place for brick-and-mortar settings.

Some school buildings don’t have central air, creating a “difficult” situation for students and teachers required to wear masks throughout the school day. In most classrooms, it’s also “virtually impossible” to space desks at least 6 feet apart to keep students socially distant.

“There are things that we’re asking for in order for us to feel safe,” Dunham said. “If they can’t do that, then we ask to go virtual.”

The Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Teachers in Avon Community Schools, just west of Indianapolis, gathered with signs Monday to peacefully protest district schools reopening, she said. On Tuesday, the school district said it learned that a second high school staff member had tested positive for the coronavirus since classes resumed July 29.

Even with remote learning options available, teachers are still being pressured to teach on two learning platforms without consideration for the strain it places on them, Dunham added. It’s another issue she called on districts to consider when weighing learning options for the new academic year.

Last week, the Indiana State Teachers Association, the largest teachers union in the state, also called for school buildings to only reopen if coronavirus cases are “under control in the community” and that specific protections are in place for students and staff to keep the virus at bay.

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