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Newly selected East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Sito Narcisse answers questions during a press conference at Glen Oaks High School. He was joined by, background from left, La. State Schools Supt. Cade Brumley, along with BESE members Preston Castille and Ronnie Morris Friday January 15, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La. They took a tour of the school and talked about the future of EBR. Narcisse, who is the chief of secondary schools in Washington, D.C., beat out EBR Interim Superintendent Adam Smith in a 5-4 vote.

About 16% of the teachers and instructional staff in East Baton Rouge Parish public schools opted to take Monday off, many in protest of a proposal from the new schools superintendent to shorten the summer break by two weeks and force many of them to change vacation and other plans.

The school district announced late Monday morning that there were a total of 531 absences out of 3,328 instructional staff. Another 61 non-instructional staff members took off Monday as well, bringing the total overall absences to 592.

Monday’s sickout was organized by one of the two teacher unions in the parish, the East Baton Rouge Parish Association of Educators, as a protest to the “Smart Start” plan announced by Narcisse at a March 31 press conference.

An employee sickout in October called by this same teacher union as a protest against poor school cleanliness and employee safety during the pandemic resulted in 11% of instructional staff staying home. Five schools ended up closing that day.

This time, Superintendent Sito Narcisse kept all schools open, including several with lots of absent employees, by sending Central Office staff there to shore them up. These schools include BR FLAIM, Broadmoor High, Forest Heights Elementary, Woodlawn Middle and Woodlawn High schools.

"While we experienced a slight uptick in total absences today, we were able to lend support where needed to ensure that high-quality instruction continued for students,” Narcisse said in a statement. “We are blessed to have some of the most passionate and devoted teachers and staff in the country.”

The East Baton Rouge Parish Association of Educators is not done. It is urging school employees to pack a parish School Board meeting Thursday night where the board will consider Narcisse’s proposal. A final vote is set for April 22.

Valencea Johnson, president of the union chapter, said she thinks the official absentee number understates the true number of absences, noting many students are already learning virtually and that some schools merged classes Monday to make it easier to keep school open.

“We have a report of 60 students being merged into one room,” Johnson said.

The other big union, the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, opted to sit Monday’s sickout out, just as they did in October.

The Smart Start proposal calls for most school employees to come back to work on July 19, two weeks earlier than planned, and for students to join them on July 28, eight school days earlier than they were supposed to return.

In return for starting early, Narcisse is proposing paying employees an additional $1,300 stipend. Most other local districts have already paid similar stipends as a way of thanking employees for the difficulty of working during the coronavirus pandemic.

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In his statement, Narcisse said he recognizes that his Smart Start proposal is asking a lot of employees, but said it’s needed to help catch up the many children who have fallen behind during the pandemic.

“I recognize that this plan requires personal sacrifices; however, growth cannot occur without bold action,” Narcisse said. “This is the first step on our path to changing educational outcomes for our children."

The school system takes daily snapshots of employee absences. The snapshots, however, group together all kinds of leave, so it’s not clear how many employees had already planned to be on leave Monday versus those who took a leave day due to the protest.

At The Advocate’s request, the school system shared absentee information for March 29, the previous Monday that school was in session — schools were out last week due to Easter Break.

Almost 11% of instructional staff took that day off, compared with the almost 16% who took Monday off. For all employees, absences stood at about 11% Monday compared with 8% on March 29.

On Monday, 12 schools had 15 or more employees absent than two week prior, led by Woodlawn Middle which had 36 employees out. On March 29, only four schools had so many employees out; Woodlawn High had the most then, with 17 out.

For many schools, though, Monday's sickout was a non-event. Fifteen had the exact same number of absences as two weeks ago and 22 schools were better staffed. For instance, LaBelle Aire Elementary only had one employee absent Monday compared with nine absent employees on March 29.

Narcisse is embarking on a blitz of events this week to explain his Smart Start plan.

On Sunday night, he did a radio interview with local NAACP leaders.

On Tuesday, at 6:30 p.m. he’s participating in a virtual town hall organized by the local nonprofit Metromorphosis.

On Wednesday, he has three events scheduled. Two more are to be held at 4 and 5:30 p.m. at Woodlawn Baptist Church and are meant for School Board member Jill Dyason’s constituents. Right afterwards, from 6 to 8 p.m., board member Dadrius Lanus is holding his own town hall featuring Narcisse at Glen Oaks High School.

Jessica Bandele, a parent of two children at Mayfair Lab, is trying to organize yet another town hall scheduled for Tuesday, April 20 at 6 p.m. for residents of board member Connie Bernard's district. Bandele said she’s doing this after listening to Narcisse’s radio interview, saying she felt he was unfairly painting teachers who’ve come against returning early as not caring about kids.

“Our teachers are passionate, dedicated employees who have done every single thing asked of them during a pandemic school year,” Bandele said. “They deserve a break. So do us parents and our kids. We all need time to process this difficult year and then let’s start the work of closing the gaps.”


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