Upper Arlington Schools staff, parent group protest March 1 full-time return to class

Nate Ellis
ThisWeek group
Upper Arlington Schools

In protest of the district’s plans to return all students to in-person classes, Upper Arlington Schools teachers and staff plan to scale back duties and hours worked to the minimum required by their contracts. 

The Upper Arlington Board of Education voted unanimously Feb. 12 to return students to in-person classes full time beginning March 1.  

Under the Upper Arlington Education Association’s collective-bargaining agreement, a strike is not a legal option. 

But because of health and safety concerns related to the district’s decision, the union that represents 542 teachers, school counselors, nurses, psychologists, therapists and speech-and-language pathologists voted Feb. 22 to move to a “work-to-rule” model. 

Work-to-rule is a job action in which employees do no more than the minimum required by their contract and follow all safety or other regulations. 

Leslie Watkins, co-president of the Upper Arlington Education Association

According to UAEA co-President Leslie Watkins, who is teaching all three middle school grades via the district’s Online Academy, the primary concern is that once all students return to school buildings, it will be impossible to maintain at least six feet of social distance in classrooms. 

“We have dedicated our lives to our students – this year especially – and we do so to the detriment of our own families,” Watkins said. “With the decision to return to all-in learning, it is clear that the board isn't taking the safety of our students, this community or us and our own families seriously. 

“We raised a number of concerns with a move to all-in focused on the physical and mental well-being of our students, first and foremost, as well as the staff and the community. Those concerns were ignored.” 

The district has been in a hybrid model since Sept. 21 that results in roughly 50% of the students not enrolled in Online Academy attending classes on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other half taking in-person classes Thursdays and Fridays.

Superintendent Paul Imhoff said classrooms in every district building are too small to maintain proper social distancing when all students are in attendance.   

“There is no one who wants to have the students back in the classroom more than our teachers, counselors, support staff, nurses – all of the people who are so dedicated to Upper Arlington’s kids – when it can be done safely,” Watkins said. “Our biggest concern right now is that the board of education has made a decision to return to all-in instruction knowing that we are not going to be able to maintain safe social distancing.” 

Watkins said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said maintaining six feet of social distance is a standard guideline. The district's Medical Advisory Team has indicated three to six feet of social distance is acceptable. 

She said the UAEA is “disappointed that the board has chosen to ignore the recommendations of the CDC and the medical professionals that they chose to lead our district through this health crisis.” 

According to board member Nancy Drees, all district teachers and staff will have received their second doses of the COVID-19 vaccination by Feb. 27. 

According to the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, it takes up to two weeks – or roughly March 13 for a teacher vaccinated Feb. 27 – after a person's second vaccination to reach full protection from coronavirus. 

In addition to reducing the amount of time they spend at school to the contractually required minimum, UAEA members plan to wear red on Fridays to show their solidarity and to spread awareness about their concerns. 

Officials in the district office did not respond to a request for comment or questions provided via email. 

Drees, who was outspoken during the Feb. 12 meeting about her belief that students needed to return to a traditional school model, also did not respond to questions via email. 

Drees did, however, make a statement regarding the UAEA’s decision to go to a work-to-rule model. 

“My colleagues on the board and I spent over two hours on Feb. 12 discussing our thoughts about the transition to all-in learning,” Drees said. “This pandemic has emphasized the importance of teaching in-person and I personally believe – and the board did as well – that we can safely return to school on March 1. 

“We have a comprehensive collective-bargaining agreement with the Upper Arlington Education Association. We are confident our staff will continue to meet the obligations in that agreement in support of students. 

“We continue to be focused on the safety of students and staff, and we are looking forward to welcoming our students on the school-based pathway back to an all-in learning schedule next week.” 

Drees also pointed to a news article by The Guardian that reported a study of Israel's vaccination program by the University of Anglia found the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is 90% effective 21 days after a single dose

In addition to the UAEA action, a group of parents calling itself Dialogue Now UA said Feb. 26 it’s collected more than 600 signatures from parents for a petition that seeks “a better plan” for returning all students to in-person classes. 

“In district communications, it has been clearly stated that children will no longer be able to physically distance in the classroom,” a letter submitted Feb. 24 by Dialogue Now UA to ThisWeek Upper Arlington News stated. “They will be in close contact at less than three feet frequently throughout the school day, despite CDC recommendations that students and teachers returning to in-person learning be able to physically distance at six feet.  

“This is a clear violation of the safety protocols recommended by the CDC, as well as the Ohio Department of Education and Franklin County Public Health. We are deeply concerned this is a violation of established health recommendations during this pandemic and we are urgently seeking your intervention now.” 

The Dialogue Now UA letter also said a return to all-in learning, without physical distancing, “is a perilous policy in and of itself. But allowing for the oxymoronic ‘in-school quarantine’ in an environment where physical distancing is no longer possible, borders on negligence – if not outright recklessness.” 

As for the UAEA, Watkins said teachers and other staff in the district also are moving to work-to-rule because they “need to take time to concentrate on our own families during our non-contract time.” 

“Our families are trying to navigate through this COVID time just as our students are and we need to be there for them, as well,” she said. “We will still be giving 110% of ourselves to our students during our contractual time.” 

nellis@thisweeknews.com 

@ThisWeekNate