Open letter to school districts on making school employees meaningful stakeholders in reopening plans

June 17, 2020

Media Contact: Rob D’Amico, 512-627-1343

Dear Superintendent and School Board Members,

A successful return to school for next semester depends on a large variety of factors that I know you have been grappling with and planning for in the past few weeks. However, the most important factor for success will be confidence—by school employees that their return to work will be as safe as possible and by children and families, those who are at the highest risk, that they will be protected at school.

Recent surveys of school employees are alarming. Fifty-five percent of El Paso AFT members said they would refuse to return to work if they felt it would put them or one of their family members at risk, with another 29% undecided on the issue. Other surveys across the state have run the gamut from high confidence in returning with safety measures to low confidence, regardless of what measures are implemented. Responses from parent surveys reflect similar trepidation.

No matter how carefully you plan and how effective the resulting implementation is, it won’t matter if you haven’t gained the confidence of the full team of school employees by providing them meaningful opportunities to be involved in all phases of planning. It’s their future, and their health, and they rightly should expect every opportunity possible to know they are valued and respected.

Unfortunately, our local union leaders are reporting disparate levels of communication and engagement from district leadership—everything from silence or perfunctory courtesy calls, to full involvement of the union and its members as a valued stakeholder. We’ve seen everything from broad community coalitions involved in the effort to only occasional district emails noting that plans are underway. We urge your district to take a collaborative approach to decision-making that is much more than a survey of employees and parents. Even if you’ve created a committee of stakeholders to develop and review plans, that committee needs to be actively collecting and responding to school employees’ concerns at all levels. And if a concern or question is raised, it needs a response that is directly tied to measures that the district is taking, or at least exploring.

This is a lot of work. We are here to help. Engaging our school employees is the foundation of what we do every day. We also have expertise in both the nitty gritty of worker safety (PPE, disinfection, distancing, instruction options) and how to effectively involve community stakeholders. We encourage you to read AFT’s “A Plan to Safely Reopen America’s Schools and Communities,” which covers all of this in detail.

Those who are at the highest risk of infection (or passing it on to immuno-compromised family members) need to be taken care of and respected. Those with health issues should not be cast aside for budgetary reasons or because the means to accommodate these issues seems daunting and out of the norm. The district should guide them and explore every possible solution to keeping them as part of the team.

Stakeholder involvement is challenging because of the many and often contradictory viewpoints on the course we need to chart during the pandemic. (Just look at the vast and varied opinions on school calendars, for example.) We must rise to this challenge if we want our school teams to be prepared, confident, and supported for a return to school. I also encourage you to look at this as an opportunity to lay the foundation for important stakeholder engagement for the budgetary challenges to come next spring. We all benefit if our team is not divided and driven into low morale. We must maintain our investment in our students in the next legislative session.

Please feel free to reach out to our local union leadership or me at any time, and we sincerely thank you for the immense efforts you are mounting and the care you have shown for our school team, parents, and students.

Zeph Capo
Texas AFT President