BR.schooldelay.072320 HS 390.JPG

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.

About 11% of the teachers in East Baton Rouge Parish public schools opted to take Monday off, protesting what they view as the substandard sanitation of schools amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The work shortage, part of a “day of action” called by a local teacher union, fell short of its goal of closing the entire school system. It did lead to the closure of five schools Monday — Belaire High, Brookstown Middle, Glen Oaks Park Elementary, Park Forest Elementary and Park Forest Middle schools. The other 66 traditional and 10 district-sponsored charter schools in the parish remained open.

The schools that closed will have to make up the day at some still-to-be-determined date.

Monday was the first day of daily, in-person instruction for public elementary schools in East Baton Rouge Parish; middle and high schools are to follow them on Oct. 19.

Nevertheless, a few schools that stayed open struggled to have a normal school day. Central Office staff rushed out to a handful of schools early Monday to cover classes for absent teachers, acknowledged Taylor Gast, a spokeswoman for the school system.

Overall, she said that 361 out about 3,300 teachers in the school district reported absent Monday, or about 80 more than had put in for leave by Sunday afternoon.

Leaders of the union that called for the job action, the East Baton Rouge Parish Association of Educators, held a short press conference Monday afternoon to say they continue to hear concerns from members about the cleanliness of the buildings. They say they want a meeting with all the players, including officials with Philadelphia-based Aramark, the private company that since 2004 has maintained school facilities, to strive for more improvements.

“We’re going to continue to fight until this gets resolved,” said Anita Augustus, president of the union.

School Board member Dawn Collins on Monday stood in solidarity with the union. She said that some of the information shared with her by union members suggest that the special sanitary protocols instituted because of the coronavirus aren’t always being followed. Others concerns, like trash cans not being emptied, are less COVID-19-related and in line with issues that have existed for a while, she said.

“Prior to COVID, people had concerns that schools were being cleaned,” Collins said.

School system leaders maintain that after a rocky start when twice-a-week in-person instruction resumed in Baton Rouge on Sept. 14, Aramark has stepped up its performance.

Aramark day staff are working longer hours, and Aramark managers work 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. shifts to inspect schools. The company is also now meeting daily with the subcontractors it hires to clean building after hours.

Aramark also recently switched out a key leadership spot on its team. At Thursday’s School Board meeting, the company introduced Demetrius Wells, the new director of operations. Wells most recently worked for Aramark at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana. He said he plans to “tweak” the program already in place in the schools.

“I think we have some strong bones," he said.

The other big union in the parish, the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, opted against joining the Association of Educators in Monday's job action.

Angela Reams-Brown, president of the Federation of Teachers, said she received calls early on about the cleanliness of school buildings, but now she’s also getting calls complimenting janitors on their work.

“Some of the members reported that their schools were cleaner than ever before,” Reams-Brown said. “One said their school was so clean that they were buying lunch for their janitor."

Rosalind Wright, principal of Park Forest Elementary, one of the schools that closed Monday, even took the trouble Monday to write an email to the janitor of her school, assuring him that her school is not one of the ones with problems.

“I am not saying that we have not had a few isolated issues with the night cleaning crew because we have, however when I call and bring these issues to your attention, it is immediately corrected,” Wright wrote. “On a scale of 1-10, I believe that our school cleanliness is at a 9.”


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