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Educator Emma Giles, left, and her daughter, Zoe Giles, join other teachers and their supporters as they gather outside the East Baton Rouge School Board offices in support of the school system going virtual amid the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

A teacher union wants East Baton Rouge Parish public school employees to take a day off next Monday in an effort to close down schools and compel better cleaning and sanitizing of school buildings to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“We are still experiencing things this year that we experienced in years before. The difference is that this year, these are unprecedented times,” Anita Augustus, president of the East Baton Rouge Parish Association of Educators, announced in a video posted on Facebook late Sunday.

Augustus said that 82% of her members surveyed last week said they want to have a work stoppage on Oct. 5, next Monday. She said people were concerned not only about the cleaning of buildings, but also availability of personal protective equipment, or PPE, and sanitizing supplies for their rooms.

“We are asking the district to do what they promised us that they would do, and many of you have said that is not happening,” Augustus said.

School employees have long had concerns about Aramark, the Philadelphia-based private company that since 2004 has maintained school facilities, but those concerns have reached a high boil as the parish schools began returning to in-person instruction on Sept. 14. Next Monday, elementary schools are set to start to move from twice-a-week to daily in-person instruction, and middle and high school students are set to follow them starting Oct. 19.

When asked about the union's announcement, the school system shared a message sent to school employees on Friday that address employee concerns about "the level of cleaning and sanitation being conducted in schools" and that the district is "pushing for improvement" from Aramark.

"As a result of these conversations, changes on Aramark's leadership team have been made, and a new plan of action was developed to ensure priority is placed on closing gaps in cleaning protocols and communications in their hierarchical structure," according to the message. "Our students and employees deserve to be in facilities where they feel safe, especially in these unprecedented times."

The other big union in the parish, the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, is not planning to join the other union by having teachers take the day off.

“I’m one of those people who believe in picking your battles and a battle you have a chance of winning,” said Angela Reams-Brown, president of the local Federation of Teachers.

She said she’s heard about the possible work stoppage next Monday, but said the Association of Educators has not asked Reams-Brown’s organization to participate. Reams-Brown said she and her members have concerns about the cleanliness of buildings but want to give school leaders more time to try to fix the problems identified. She also said she’s worried that the school system will take away an employee holiday to make up for instructional time lost next week.

“I’m not in opposition to it, but at this point, on this day, I don’t see the need to be taking off a work day,” Reams-Brown said.

The pandemic has prompted workplaces all over to up their hygiene levels. In the education world, concern about the cleanliness of school buildings has steadily grown as schools have reopened this fall for in-person instruction. A recent national poll by the American Federation of Teachers found that 90% of teachers want daily deep cleaning of their buildings and 84 percent of parents surveyed agreed.

East Baton Rouge Parish schools’ reopening plan called for deep cleaning only on Wednesdays, cleanings which will stop as children return to daily in-person instruction. The first such deep cleaning on Sept. 16 prompted a wave of discontent as teachers took to social media to complain, and post pictures of things in their classrooms that weren’t cleaned.

School system officials met with Augustus and Reams-Brown last week and made changes, including having Aramark have more people working in late afternoons to make sure that the cleaning was done properly — after-hours cleaning is done by an array of local janitorial firms hired by Aramark.

Reams-Brown said things went better that second deep cleaning last Wednesday, noting that district administrators made their own unannounced checks on how school cleaning was going.

But Augustus said when employees returned to work Thursday and “many of you said that nothing had changed.”

“I have pictures of trash cans not being emptied, dirt in classrooms and just the whole gambit that we’ve been complaining about since the very beginning,” Augustus said.

The union was considering similar action when the school system announced plans to start the 2020-21 school year with a hybrid of virtual and in-person instruction. On July 22, both unions held a protest in front of the School Board office. Earlier that day newly appointed Superintendent Leslie Brown announced at the time she would keep school buildings closed and not resume in-person instruction until after Labor Day.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.