Was it the blue flu, “stress” as union president Darlene Netcoh suggests, or just the alignment of the stars?
Whatever it was, when 33 Veterans Junior High School teachers called in sick Wednesday, it had the school administration scrambling to find substitute teachers. School got off to a late start, but with the help of 10 administrators, all classes were covered, according to Superintendent Philip Thornton.
To put the number of teacher absences in perspective, 38 percent of Vets 87 teachers called in sick. District-wide, including the 33 Vets teachers, 75 teachers called in sick, or 9 percent of the nearly 900 district teachers.
As for the Vets students, 95 percent showed up for class.
“There is no flu strain that just affects teachers, adults, in one building,” said Thornton. “It’s good to know the kids aren’t sick.”
Netcoh, president of the Warwick Teachers Union, said the union hadn’t planned an action, noting that, “It is the cold season.” But she reasons “stress” may be the root factor.
“Everyone there is under stress,” she said. She tied that to conditions in the building, lack of a teachers contract and “threatening” from Thornton.
Specifically, she referred to a memo sent to all secondary teachers last week advising them to commence electronic grading with the Aspen system this week or the department would initiate disciplinary action. A total of 93 secondary teachers, one-third of the total of secondary teachers, have not converted to using the system that provides parents with online access to their child’s performance.
Netcoh said Thornton “threatened to terminate” teachers if they didn’t use the system. About 100 percent of Winman’s teachers are using the system. Numbers were not available for Pilgrim and Toll Gate.
Thornton did not make a correlation between the directive to use electronic grading and what happened yesterday at Vets. He said while secondary teachers were given a deadline of this Tuesday to use the system, because of Internet problems throughout the district, the district has not calculated how many have not conformed to the directive.
“We’re working through that now,” Thornton said yesterday afternoon. “It’s going to be Thursday before we validate where we are.”
Although the memo makes it clear teachers are to use the system, Thornton said he recognizes there will be people who are uncomfortable with electronic grading and will need training.
“Please make an effort,” he said of those teachers, “and we will keep giving support.”
Netcoh said for a story published last week that the union is in agreement with electronic grading, however, it views that as part of an overall contract that it has yet to reach with the district. Teachers have been without a contract since August 2015. In addition, Netcoh claimed the grading system has problems and has caused some teachers to redo lost work.
Thornton said department protocol is to require a doctor’s note on the third day of an absence. Under the contract that expired, teachers had 90 days of sick leave.
Social media was buzzing with news of the teacher absences. Among comments was, “The only information parents received is the robocall and an email that was released to the public through the school department. 33 teachers called out and I think the staff have done the best they could to deal with today’s teacher illness.”
A post to the RI Warwick Vets Junior High Info/Concerns Facebook page from Rebekah Bascombe Lawton read: “An FYI – a special ed teacher is out [for more than today] and they do not have a sub for her so IEPs are being violated.”
Earlier this fall in response to rumors that there could be an elementary school teacher sickout, Thornton sent a Connect-Ed to parents warning them schools could be closed if teachers failed to show up. There was no extraordinary absence of teachers and schools opened without incident.
In a statement issued to the news media, Thornton said the department had been told by the union, “They would never use a ‘sick out’ to protect the drawn out process of teacher contract negotiations. Fortunately, the virus spreading through the teaching ranks at Vets has had no impact on the students, as we have a 95 percent student attendance rate today at Veterans Jr. High.”