Detroit, Midland school support staff want same COVID-19 protections as teachers

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Detroit teachers were able to cut a deal with Detroit Public School Community District (DPSCD) Thursday, but the district’s support staff are saying they face the same risks as teachers with the reopening of schools without many of the same protections. 

DPSCD paraprofessionals, food service workers and office employees now are calling on district Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to offer up more support. 

In order to avoid a strike, teachers bargained a deal with the district and ended up with more COVID-19 testing, the option to work remotely, $750 in hazard pay for each marking period for teachers who work face-to-face with students, smaller class sizes, extra sick days if a teacher contracts COVID-19 and the ability to bring their own school age children into their classrooms in lieu of child care. 

“The lives of secretaries, paraprofessionals, food service workers, and other support staff are just as important as other employees that work for [DPSCD], but Superintendent Dr. Nikolai Vitti doesn’t appear to agree,” said Donna Jackson, president of the Detroit Federation of Paraprofessionals. “Forcing staff back into school buildings and treating us as second-class citizens indicates that the district administration does not value who we are and what we do. Our members always go above and beyond for our students and the school community and our demands mirror our dedication. We want to work, but we want to do it safely.” 

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Support staff, including paraprofessionals and office staff, were not given the option to work from home this school year, despite working remotely when schools closed last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, despite offering teachers who test positive use COVID-19 days rather than their regular sick days, support staff are still required to use their regular sick days.

On Wednesday, the Detroit Federation of Paraprofessionals and Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees began bargaining with the administration for the same protections teachers at DPSCD won.

“As the collective bargaining unit for the clerical and office staff for DPSCD we have faced many obstacles with the district during this pandemic. We are facing yet another new hurdle as the district plans to reopen: Not allowing our members choice,” said Stephanie Carreker, president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees. 

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“The district feels that our work is a necessary function and yet, they’re treating us like we’re expendable. We have members who have health issues or are taking care of elderly parents who have fears about the return of staff and students into buildings. It has been proven that our jobs can be done remotely, which we did for three months, and it’s critical that the district give our members a choice on how they return to work.”

Last week, Midland Public Schools (MPS) paraprofessionals made a similar ask of their school administration to improve workplace safety, but the district denied all of their requests. 

“Are parents aware that these important stakeholders in their students’ education and safety have been excluded from discussions directly impacting the safety and welfare of their children, denied sick leave, shortchanged in regard to [Personal Protective Equipment] and overlooked in regard to direct input?” said David Koch, president of the Central Michigan Central Labor Council. “If they are not aware, is the district prepared for a tidal wave of disapproval when these parents learn that their children are being put at risk as a result of poor planning and lack of communication, as well as possible failure to follow [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and health department guidelines?” 

Requests for comment from MPS and DPSCD officials were not immediately returned.

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During an Aug. 25 press conference, Midland paraprofessionals, union representatives, parents and other supporters laid out demands for guaranteed personal protective equipment, additional sick days off if they are exposed to COVID and the ability to take an unpaid leave of absence for the school year to care for children learning from home with a guaranteed right to return with no penalty.

District officials said they are following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Safe Start Plan that encourages a broad group of stakeholders to give feedback and be included in the revision of plans for the upcoming school year, however the local paraprofessionals said they were not included in the discussion.

The district’s administration advised paraprofessionals to take out short-term insurance plans if they would like to continue being paid while they take sick leave after contracting COVID-19. 

“Returning to school is usually exciting and worry-free. This year, paras are anxious, stressed, and some have resigned. Our local has been negotiating with MPS where we should have been collaborating. There are too many unknowns, not enough COVID days, no hazard pay or extra compensation,” said Tanya Ross, a paraprofessional at MPS. “Paras who are parents of children should not have to choose between their child’s health or their job.”

Allison Donahue
Allison Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.