Richmond teachers union prepares to vote to strike over COVID concerns

Richmond teachers union prepares to vote to strike over COVID concerns
WCCUSD Teachers from Valley View Elementary wearing #RedforEd (Photo courtesy of UTR)

By Kathy Chouteau

United Teachers of Richmond (UTR), the union representing 1,100 educators in the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD), is prepared to vote whether to strike Friday—with a strike potentially happening mid-to-late next week unless its COVID-related health and safety demands are met by the district, according to UTR President Marissa Glidden.

Glidden said that, over the weekend, 72 percent of UTR’s members indicated in a poll that they were ready to strike if safety demands weren’t met. On the heels of the polling, the UTR Executive Board gave Glidden the green light “to call an official strike vote based on the unsafe conditions if an agreement is not met by this Friday,” per a UTR statement on Facebook.

Glidden said that UTR met with the district Monday and Wednesday and that they were slated to meet with them again today. She said that there’s been “movement” in their negotiations and that they’re “hopeful there’s continued progress” because they’d like to come to an agreement.

According to Glidden, UTR’s safety demands include: PPE-high-quality masks for both students and teachers; weekly testing for all; qualified adults in every classroom missing a regular teacher; and twice a week testing for classrooms with three or more COVID cases (if this is not possible, a temporary move to remote learning during the quarantine period).

“If we don’t hear back by tomorrow night, if we don’t come to an agreement where we think those demands are met—at least in a reasonable fashion, as fast as possible—then we will call a strike vote for next week,” said Glidden. She underscored that they “likely wouldn’t strike on Friday,” but that they would vote to strike that day, followed by an official strike vote Monday and a possible strike happening potentially mid-to-late-next week. Glidden said the timeline is subject to change as things develop.

Glidden and two WCCUSD teachers—including Mira Vista Elementary fourth grade teacher Debra Cruger-Hansen and another educator who preferred to remain anonymous—shared that some of their issues include teachers being overwhelmed, understaffed and being subjected to a lack of thorough safety protocols amid multiple COVID-19 surges. They also posed concerns of inequity among schools, including facilities they say are ill-equipped for safe learning.

Cruger-Hansen said that “the teachers do not want to strike…We have gotten to this point because the district has not listened to us.” She said that the teachers are “hoping that this will get the district to sit up and listen and take us seriously.”

As of this writing, the WCCUSD has not responded to the Standard’s request for comment. But in a statement to the East Bay Times, WCCUSD Communications Director Ryan Phillips said the district has taken steps to work with its school community such as providing multiple KN95 masks to employees each week and KN95 and surgical masks to students daily. The district said it is also administering weekly testing at school sites and hiring full-time nurses for a tracing program with Contra Costa County Health Services.

“The district has taken and continues to take significant action to ensure our schools and staff are safe,” added the district’s statement to the Times. “We agree that KN95 masks, a robust contact tracing program, support for schools to cover employee absences, and vaccine clinics are appropriate areas to direct our focus and resources as our district, like many across the state, is strained by the omicron surge.”

The WCCUSD has 27,000 students originating from Richmond, San Pablo and nearby communities. UTR consists of nearly 1,700 K-12 teachers, counselors, psychologists, speech pathologists, early childhood educators and nurses serving the WCCUSD.

WCCUSD teachers from Mira Vista Elementary wearing #RedforEd (Photo contributed by UTR)