Instead, Gahanna students stayed at home — something students in the district have been doing since the state ordered all of Ohio’s school buildings closed in March due to coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s new territory, that’s for sure,” said John Conrath, who directs the superintendents’ licensure program at Ohio State University and is a retired Whitehall City Schools superintendent.
The 572-member Gahanna-Jefferson Education Association had authorized a strike with the State Employment Relations Board on Tuesday after negotiations. The old contract expired June 30.
The strike did “have little bit of a different feel to it because it does have this online component to it you don’t normally have,” said Ohio Education Association president Scott DiMauro.
Board of Education President Beryl Piccolantonio noted Sunday that this was an “unusual negotiation process” because of COVID-19.
“It has been a really difficult year for a lot of different reasons,” Piccolantonio said concerning everyone involved..
GJEA members initially picketed Tuesday at all school buildings and the administrative office for the district, which encompasses the city of Gahanna, parts of Jefferson and Mifflin townships. But picketing moved to South Hamilton Road outside the Gahanna Lincoln High School and the district administrative offices.
“It didn’t make a whole lot of sense to have picket lines set up at all the buildings the way they normally would because there’s nobody going in and out of those buildings anyway,” DiMauro said last week. “So you’re going to have to go places where you are going to have the most impact in terms of visibility and sending a message to the community and to the district and the board.”
Teachers on the Gahanna-Jefferson picket lines had to be mindful of social distancing and wearing masks. As some students and parents voluntarily showed up on the picket line, teachers had to make sure they are following coronavirus safety precautions as well.
“You want to make sure that you’re not creating a super-spreader event when you’re going on strike, so you have to make sure that you’re really careful about this,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers..
The district’s school year started Aug. 24 and some students were set to resume classes in-person Tuesday, but the district told families they would continue learning online through at least the end of the week because of the possibility of a strike, which ultimately occurred.
A flashpoint in the dispute over Gahanna’s new contract involve what classrooms will look like when in-person school resumes, including an expectation that teachers will place cameras in their classrooms so students whose families have decided to keep them home can watch instruction in real time.
Many local teachers unions nationwide have expressed concerns about expectations and accommodations related to COVID-19, and the pandemic is putting pressure on teachers and schools in numerous ways, DiMauro said.
“One is obviously the underlying fear and concern that the virus continues to spread,” he said. “Until we get past the virus, that’s always going to be an underlying issue.”
Another issue is trying to determine how to teach students who are both online and in-person.
“That’s putting tremendous workload challenges on educators by having to teach through a mask and a computer screen and meet the needs of all students. People have never been more stressed out then they are right now,” DiMauro said.
Still, teacher strikes during COVID-19 have been rare.
The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union and the national affiliate of the Gahanna-Jefferson union, was unaware of any other K-12 strikes currently underway among its members Friday, spokesman Richard Allen Smith said.
There were 13 bargaining strikes among NEA affiliates during the 2019-2020 school year, Smith said.
The only other school district among NEA affiliates to go on strike so far during COVID-19 was St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. Teachers there went on strike for three days in March over a contract dispute, but reached a tentative agreement with the school district on March 13, during the start of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, according to the Star Tribune.
Concerns over COVID-19 actually played a role in ending the St. Paul strike, which was conducted over resources for more social workers, nurses, psychologists and multilingual staff.
“You may actually see more and more strikes, depending on how long this pandemic lasts,” said Weingarten said. “If you’re in the middle of a pandemic, the real issue becomes how do you make sure that you keep schools safe.”