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Franklin Teachers File Grievance Against School District As COVID-19 Cases Keep Climbing

Educators Say District Not Equipped For Social Distancing

Face masks hanging on hooks on a door
Face coverings hang on hooks along with keys by the front door of the Adamus family on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, in Dallas, Ga. Brynn Anderson/AP Photo

A group of teachers and paraprofessionals in the Franklin School District have put administrators on notice over safety concerns related to the coronavirus.

In September, a group of 77 educators filed a grievance with the district over its reopening plan. They argued class sizes, available space and school ventilation made it impossible for the district to actually practice the social distancing and safety measures it laid out in its roadmap for in-person instruction.

“All guidance, from CDC and everywhere else, says the last thing you want to be doing in this pandemic is bringing a whole bunch of people together to spend a bunch of time indoors,” said Ted Kraig, director of Region 7 of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) teachers union. “That’s what school is, essentially.”

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Epidemiologists’ understanding of coronavirus transmission among children in schools, as well as its effects on kids, is still fairly limited. Though many school districts have had to quarantine classes or shut down schools due to positive tests or suspected transmission, many of those cases are believed to have been contracted outside of schools. As with every other aspect of pandemic life, though, experts say vigilant mask-wearing and social distancing can reduce the risk of spreading the disease.

Kraig, whose region includes Franklin and other southwest Wisconsin districts, said the district still hasn’t processed the grievance — meaning met with the educators or addressed the grievance directly — which it has to do by law. WEAC’s attorneys have notified the district that it’s violating its legal obligation. Kraig said if they still don’t address it, the attorneys would have to go to court with the district over the educators’ complaints.

The district’s communications specialist declined an interview request, but did provide a statement. It says the Franklin School District addressed the educators’ grievance “in accordance with the district’s grievance procedure,” though it did not go into detail about what that looked like in this case. It repeatedly mentioned the district has more than 700 employees, of which the 77 filing a grievance were about 10 percent.

“Our students and staff have followed all safety protocols and for the last 8 weeks. Disinfecting and sanitation occur at high levels throughout the day and all ventilation complies with state codes for safety standards,” district Administrator Judy Mueller said in the statement. “We are proud of our staff, students, and families and will continue to work together to provide our students with the best possible educational experience during this difficult time.”

Kraig said the educators tried repeatedly to talk to district decision-makers and the local health department about their concerns before filing a grievance.

“On all occasions, really, their thoughts were not considered,” he said. “It was very clear the district was going to do whatever it was going to do, and did not really care what they had to say.”

He said the point of the grievance is not to get litigious, but to prompt a discussion between the teachers and paraprofessionals who filed it and the district. He said it’s been used successfully for other matters — typically discipline issues, and occasionally questions of workplace safety. The vast majority, he said, are settled in preliminary discussions between a district representative and the people who filed the grievance, where they hash out concerns and solutions. If that doesn’t work, it goes to an impartial hearing officer, and then to the school board for a final decision.

“Educators are very disappointed that the same kind of process isn’t being utilized now, given the stakes for people’s health and lives,” Kraig said.

The union’s statewide spokesperson said she wasn’t sure of the status of other safety grievances in Wisconsin at this point. Kraig said Franklin is the only district in his region where he’s aware of a grievance having been filed, though he suspects it won’t be the last.

“More grievances may be coming in other places, frankly, because there’s a general anxiety among educators about how safe it is to be in the districts right now, in the buildings.” he said. “People are feeling, is it really wise, is it really safe to be practicing school the way we are right now?”