A teacher union in Baton Rouge is trying to shut down public schools in town Wednesday after the local school district failed to agree to demands to shift immediately to virtual instruction districtwide and return to in-person learning “only after a significant decrease in COVID-19 cases.”

The union, the East Baton Rouge Parish Association of Educators, announced a “day of action” for Wednesday at a press conference Tuesday afternoon, urging school employees to “refuse to show up for work.”  It's meant to protest the district’s continued insistence on in-person instruction amid a fifth surge of COVID spurred by the omicron variant that has sent cases rising “at a startling rate.”

Valencea Johnson, president of the union chapter, said the school system can’t handle the current spike in cases, and it needs to go virtual until it can.

“We have all of these cases because we cannot function,” Johnson said. “We are trying to function and we can’t.”

The union issued a handful of demands to Supt. Sito Narcisse late Monday and asked him to respond by noon Tuesday, which he did not. It held its press conference at the Baton Rouge office of its parent, Louisiana Association of Educators.

Shortages of school personnel in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system over the past week since schools returned from Christmas break have already prompted more than a dozen schools to shift to virtual. On Tuesday, two more schools, McKinley Middle and Southdowns Pre-K Center, decided to go virtual and won’t come back in person until Jan. 18.

EBRPAE, which says it has about 1,100 members, is pressing for all schools to make the shift because the shortages are worse than school leaders are saying.

“We have received reports of entire departments being out, and classes being combined,” the union said in a statement. “In addition, teachers, ancillary, office staff, and other staff are being forced to cover classes, putting the health and safety of educators and students are at risk.”

Johnson said that the shortages are forcing schools to combine not just classrooms but buses, mixing what are supposed to be static groups, raising the possibility of more infections.

“That is a safety hazard,” she said. “That is spreading COVID.”

In a statement, Narcisse said the district was working to enforce masking, test staff, regularly clean schools and taking other measures.

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"I understand that many staff members have been asked to stand in the gap for their colleagues who may be sick or have tested positive, and for that we continue to be extremely grateful," Narcisse said. "When weighing the decision to transition a school or class to remote learning we have to consider the burden that places on working family members, staff and students. If the last few years have taught us anything, we know that our students thrive when they are with us in classrooms, supported by professional educators and collaborating with their peers."

Candita Belona-Sims, vice president of the chapter, said the sickout Wednesday is a last resort that is about protecting “the health and safety of our kids” and the union is prepared to call for similar actions in the future if nothing changes.

“We felt like this is the only way at this point,” Belona-Sims said.

On Friday, the school system reported 613 COVID cases on 55 campuses for last week, prompting 1,589 quarantines. That's four times the number of cases and a 41% increase in quarantines compared with late August, the peak of the fourth surge in Louisiana, just before Hurricane Ida. The week before Christmas saw just 37 cases and 237 quarantines.

The union has sought work stoppages twice since the pandemic started. It succeeded at a few schools, but failed to shut down the entire district as sought.

The first “sick-out” was in September 2020, prompted by reports of poor cleanliness in schools as they returned to in-person instruction for the first time since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. The second attempt was last April and was prompted by Narcisse’s plan, later shelved, to have employees return several days early for the 2021-22 school year to try to catch up students who’d fallen behind during the pandemic.

The rival teacher union, the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, declined to take part in the proposed “sick-out,” just as it did not take part in the EBRPAE’s attempts at work stoppages last year.

"We are encouraging our members to not take the day," the Federation of Teachers chapter said in a post on Facebook. "However, we are in talks with the superintendent about the Covid situation. We have brought your concerns to him."

EBRPAE has issued other demands:

  • Doubling the number of special COVID leave days from five to 10, matching the number the district provided employees last school year.
  • Allowing telework for departments of the school district that can do so, rather than insisting that employees work in person.

At the press conference, EBRPAE officials also said they’d like the district to focus more on deep cleaning schools after outbreaks, improving vaccinations rates among students and expanding weekly COVID testing to all students, particularly after students return from a break.

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