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Ed Contract Negotiations and Parent Demonstration Today

Today is the first day many Fairbanks-area elementary students will be returning to in-person learning in their home classrooms. Teachers and Support Staff unions are asking for a review of the workplace safety clauses of their employment contracts. And ahead of tonight’s school board meeting, a group of parents plans to picket the school district building to protest the in-person return as unsafe.

Late last month the Fairbanks Education Association and the Education Support Staff Association asked the Fairbanks North Star Borough school board to address the risks of children returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic. They asked the district to renegotiate their employment contracts in the middle of the term.

“We do believe there is a fundamental change in our workplace environment and therefore, we should be at the table.”

Sandra Ryan is a math and computer science teacher, and president of the Fairbanks Education Association. The unions say the change in workplace safety shifted when the school board voted December 14 to allow students to return in-person, without requiring strict following of COVID-19 safety guidelines. Elementary students are in the first wave and are returning today. Middle Schoolers next week and High Schoolers on February 1.

A week ago, the school board met in executive session, and authorized the district’s Human Relations staff to negotiate. The full contracts were signed in 2019 and don’t expire until June, 2022. A mid-term negotiation is very unusual, but so is a pandemic. The sides will meet today after school in a conference room.

“We are meeting at 3:00 and are meeting face-to-face.”

Negotiations are normally open to teachers and district staff to observe, so that sessions would not have to be recorded. But Ryan says finding a space big enough to meet in person and still allow observers in is going to be tricky.

“We are not comfortable taking a school gym that now somebody may need for class.”

FEA represents about 900 teachers, and ESSA represents about 1,500 non-certified educators in the district. The issue of workplace safety during the pandemic is not specifically on tonight’s school board agenda. School district spokespeople were not available to comment for this story.

The safety issue is also the focus of a demonstration planned by an ad-hoc parent group for this afternoon. Tamara Kruse Roselius says it is important for the community to listen to the medical advice and to follow guidelines on hygiene, masking and social distancing.

“This is just a show of solidarity with teachers, that we understand their concerns. If you get past the rhetoric, we all want the same things; we all want the kids in school and learning, and we just have disagreements about how to do that.”

She says after listening to many school board meetings, the high school student in her family has decided it is not safe enough to return in-person. Demonstrators plan to picket along Fifth Avenue before the school board meeting begins. Ezra Adasiak (uh-DAY-zee-ak) is a Lathrop High School Senior who will join the demonstration. He thinks there are too many high school students to space out properly.

“We’re not able to consistently meet CDC guidelines, because there is a lot of mixing, we’re forced to go from room-to-room. Whereas CDC guidelines recommend everyone remaining in the same space, to minimize mixing.”

He says remote education is the safe alternative to making teachers and staff members ill with COVID-19.

“If you look at online education looks like in March, last year when we were first forced to quarantine and learn from home, it was worlds away from what it’s come to be now. We’ve developed it so much since then, and I think we can only improve upon that.”

Adasiak says he will continue to choose the online learning option to protect teachers. High school students are due to return to classrooms February 1.