COVID-19 concerns lead to discussions of teacher protests, strikes on national level
By ERIN ROLL
Although Montclair has followed the decision of many school districts in the state to open remote-only, the prospect of schools eventually reopening for in-person instruction has been a source of worry for teacher associations across the country.
Discussions have swirled over protests and strikes if teachers continue to feel unsafe about going back into classrooms.
The Montclair Education Association declined to comment Friday on whether it was considering any sort of protest if it felt school conditions would be unsafe upon reopening.
New Jersey Education Association spokesperson Steve Baker said that the association, which represents the largest number of teachers in the state, stands by its members in their determination not to expose their students or their colleagues to unnecessary risk.
“Our focus right now is 100 percent on ensuring that students and educators are safe this year. Our members are working and organizing district by district to help ensure that happens,” Baker said.
The MEA and NJEA are among a number of state and local-level teacher associations that called for school districts to begin the school year remotely, citing health and safety concerns for staff and students.
In Elizabeth, about 375 teachers said that they would not show up to teach if school districts reopened for in-person instruction in September.
New Jersey is one of 35 states where it is illegal for teachers to go on strike, according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research. Penalties up to $10,000 could be levied against the striking organization for each day of the strike.
In 1975, Montclair teachers nearly went on strike when the staff contract expired in June of that year without a new contract being approved. However, the strike was averted that September after the MEA and BOE agreed on a new contract just before the start of school.
In 2001, a judge ordered teachers in Middletown to be jailed after they refused a court order to return to work.
Strikes have taken place in New Jersey despite the legal ban. In 2018, media reports indicated that there had been 160 teacher strikes in New Jersey since 1968, when striking was banned, mainly from the late 1960s through to the 1980s.
Other forms of protest typically used in New Jersey include teachers not working any hours beyond what is specifically covered in their contracts, such as after-school tutoring, leading field trips or supervising extracurricular activities. Staff in some districts have conducted sick-outs, in which many staffers call in sick on the same day.
In New York, the city’s American Federation of Teachers chapter announced that members would go on strike if they felt the schools were not safe due to COVID-19. As in New Jersey, teachers in New York are prohibited from striking.
In July, at a biennial union meeting of the AFT, President Randi Weingarten said members are considering strikes over COVID-19 conditions, but only as a last resort.
“Just as we have done with our healthcare workers, we will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators. But if authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table — not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes,” Weingarten said.
In the speech, Weingarten said that prior to resurgences of the virus in many states this summer, a poll found 76 percent of AFT-affiliated teachers were comfortable with going back to school in person.
“Now they’re afraid and angry. Many are quitting, retiring or writing their wills,” she said.
Montclair has seen a 25-percent increase in retirements over the past year, with 35 teachers retiring for 2019-2020, up from 28 teachers the year before.
Montclair had planned on going back on Sept. 10 with teachers in buildings four days a week, but two weeks later officials pulled back and said the district would open with remote-only learning. They have not yet indicated when they expect school buildings to reopen.
In 2019, about 300 teachers and staff staged a walkout in the Franklin Lakes school district. The source of the dispute was extended contract negotiations and a dispute over staff contributions to health care and benefits. The strike ended after six hours when a judge ordered teachers to return to work. While a contract was eventually agreed upon, the district added an extra day to the school calendar to make up for the day lost during the strike.
In 2018, Jersey City teachers held a strike disputing high healthcare costs. The strike lasted one day. A judge ordered teachers to return to work, and two days later, the Jersey City BOE and the teachers union reached an agreement on healthcare costs.
At the end of the strike, the New Jersey School Boards Association released a statement criticizing the strike. “Teacher strikes are not legal in New Jersey, with good reason: Education is an essential service, and a work stoppage by teachers disrupts the school program. It’s an imposition on families, and it hurts kids,” NJSBA Executive Director Lawrence Feinsod said.
Montclair teachers held a rally in front of the BOE offices on Valley Road in October, amid problems with ensuring that teaching staff were being paid properly. The rally took place during the afternoon, after school had been dismissed for the day.