Local Leaders Speak Out on Behalf of VEA Members
March 22, 2021
March 22, 2021
Educators have been in uncharted territory since last March, when COVID-19 showed up and wreaked havoc with their lives and those of their students and families. Never has leadership been more important—and local union leaders haven’t let down the professionals they represent.
Here a sampling of what some local leaders have been publicly stepping up and saying on behalf of their members, at school board meetings and in other venues, as communities and school divisions work through the impacts of this coronavirus:
We’ve Risked Everything
Throughout the pandemic, we have muscled through a wholesale change in our educational mindset. Grit, determination, hustle, creativity, and empathy are some of the key words I would use to describe what the staff of WPS has shown in this unique school year. We have literally put our lives on the line for the children and community. Looking at the COVID Dashboard weekly gave me a sense of fear: Would I, would one of my department or one of my colleagues across the division be the next to get sick, and maybe not recover? Through all of this, we showed up, put our teacher, nurse, classroom aide, school counselor, bus driver, food service, librarian, custodial, maintenance, office, or admin hats on, and made the best of a tricky situation. We’ve been flexible to the point of breaking sometimes.
Now, as the public budget discussion starts up, I want to be very clear on what staff would like to see. We want to make sure that our priorities of affordable health insurance premiums, competitive salaries, safe working conditions, and positive and proactive communication around evaluations and policy are the items you emphasize as well…When staff see that neighboring divisions are offering salary increases, there has to be consideration of something (besides the valuable work we do) that keeps us here in Winchester.
Over the past several years, the WPS School Board has gone to bat for the staff, and we would like to say thank you, and to ask you to shoulder another heavy lift. Our school system needs can be overwhelming—but what we do as educators is overwhelming (in a good way). I am constantly in awe of what my colleagues do every day. All we ask is that the WPS School Board listen and provide the support we need to keep serving the children of Winchester.
Winchester Education Association
President Michael Siraguse
Sometimes, the Music Has to Stop
I’ve been a musician for over 20 years: joined my first band in eighth grade and have played thousands of shows in 15 states. This moonlighting as a musician is more than just a job, though. It’s been an emotional and creative outlet for me since I was in middle school. It’s been a part of who I am.
There are only two times in my life I can say for sure that I haven’t played music. The first one was when I’d just graduated from college and couldn’t dedicate time to creating music before finding a job.
The second time is now. Like the rest of the nation, my life drastically changed last March 13. Since then, I’ve sat behind a drum set twice. Not because I don’t have time. I’ll always make time for music. And not because I don’t want to. I desperately want to. I’m not playing because it is the right thing to do.
You see, a few of the musicians I play with do not have health insurance. If I got COVID, I could go to the hospital with minimal worry about finances. That’s not the case for my friends. If I inadvertently got them sick, I don’t know if I could forgive myself.
I tell you all of this because I know you have difficult decision to make. I’m not even remotely suggesting that my decision to not play music is comparable to deciding whether or not to remain in-person in our school system. I am saying, not only to you but to the rest of the people in this room and those listening via livestream, that sometimes we choose to make things harder on ourselves, not because we want to, but because it better serves those around us.
Bristol Virginia Education Association
Co-President Noah Ashbrook
What are the Rules?
We have community members who like to come in here and talk about the World Health Organization’s guidelines for spacing between students. So then, let’s talk about the World Health Organization’s guidelines for positivity rates. The WHO says that the positivity rate should be below 5% for a community for a minimum of 14 days before schools even consider reopening. Only seven states meet these requirements, and we all know that Virginia isn’t one of them.
We’ve heard that children don’t get COVID. We know that’s not true. We’ve gone from an almost zero COVID rate per 100,000 people for kids in April, when schools were closed, to a rate of over 1500 per 100,000 today. Children today make up almost 12 percent of cases…
Let’s talk about the reason we shut schools down back in March: to flatten the curve and reduce the strain on our medical facilities. At Lynchburg General, which is a five-story building, we’ve already got two floors dedicated to COVID response and they’re preparing to open a third. I’d say we’re straining our medical facilities.
So, what we want is a defined set of metrics. What are the rules to this game of Russian Roulette we are playing? Your staff, your students, your parents, and your community deserve to know.
Lynchburg Education Association
President Karl Loos
‘It Sure Would Be Nice to Be Treated Like I Was Average’
Recently one of my students asked me if I thought he should be a teacher. It made me stop and think.
“It’s a tough gig,” I told him…Teaching is like walking across four lanes of highway, risking everything and dodging cars to get to the middle to help a child. That is what is at the center of this profession, and it is very much a profession.
Sometimes, though, when you’re trying to reach that kid on the other side of the mad traffic, you get hit: families move away, families get their visas denied and move away, students disappear, students drop out, students get kicked out.
Earlier this month, in one week, our school was locked down because of a threat. The next day, one of our students committed suicide.
I want the best for my students, all of my fellow professional educators do, but it is a relentless and extremely isolating job…
Did you know that Virginia teachers make over $9,000 less than the national average?
It sure would be nice to be treated like I was average. And that’s why I could not tell my student to be a teacher: my students might not all always earn it, but I think every last one deserves to be treated better than average.
I invite you to show the community, state, and country that you truly value your teachers by treating us like we’re at least average. I think it will restore a lot of faith and it will heal, because teachers will continue to serve—because we don’t think of it as a job, we think of it as our identity as people on this earth.
Henrico Education Association
President John Reaves
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Our review shows that after five years of service, 56 of our new teachers quit. Furthermore, the pandemic has accelerated the number of teachers who retire or resign from VBCPS. From July to November in 2019, 92 teachers retired or resigned. In 2020, we lost 210. The numbers do not lie and signal that the teacher shortage is real and demands that we take a long, deep look at the budget to find solutions to this problem. Therefore, the VBEA would like to offer the following recommendations to the budget.
Teachers at the 5, 10, 15, and 20-year level of service are often making less than starting teachers. Since 2010, our starting teacher salary has gone up 23 percent, while the average teacher salary has gone up by less than 5 percent. Experienced teachers are falling behind. The step system is broken. Adjust the step scale to reflect true experience.
Create a task force that will formulate short, medium- and long-term goals for attracting and retaining educators. The task force would include stakeholders from the city council and school board, city and school administrations, and the VBEA, as well as other interested parties.
The bottom line is this: We are facing an imminent crisis if we do not address this situation now. Educators were behind on pay and compensation before the pandemic; now it is even worse. Did you know that Virginia ranks 34th in the country in teacher pay? And on average, Virginia Beach teachers are paid 6.5 percent less than the state average (more than $4,000). Until 2015, Virginia Beach paid more than the state average by 2 to 4 percent. With inflation and the 5 percent VRS contribution added to the equation, buying power for teachers in Virginia Beach has decreased 18 percent since 2009. Years of stagnant pay raises or raises that barely cover inflation have left its toll.
Market forces, coupled with the pandemic, have left us once again on the short end of the stick. It is time to be proactive in our efforts and show our employees we value them by paying them appropriately.
Virginia Beach Education Association
President Kelly Walker
It’s Your Job to Look Out for Us
As elected officials, the spotlight is on you and your decisions…What will you do when, inevitably, an outbreak occurs? What is the plan? What is the Board’s “goal”? How much collateral damage do you need to prove a point? Why is the school system so focused on keeping students in class despite being so far beyond the threshold for highest risk established by the CDC? Are the School Board members aware of their personal and organizational liability if a teacher or student has lasting health consequences or dies? Is the system aware of whether its insurers will pay out for damages if the school system continues to operate so far beyond the CDC thresholds, and thus cannot prove it has met a reasonable standard of care?
Pittsylvania Education Association
President Jessica Jones