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Ensuring a Role for School Support Staff in Distance Learning

The indefinite closure of New London Public Schools (NLPS) on March 13 generated understandable anxiety and concern throughout the community. Tensions were particularly high for approximately 200 non-certified education personnel who provide vital support for nearly 3,700 students in the Whaling City.
Leaders of our affiliated New London Federation of Non-Certified Personnel responded by quickly securing members’ full pay for the first day. “No one knew what was going to happen beyond that,” said Elijah Singer, a special education teachers’ assistant at Harbor Elementary School’s Early Childhood Center. 
Fortunately, local union leaders had already engaged AFT Connecticut Field Representative Logan Place to assist with further negotiations. The need only escalated when Governor Ned Lamont two days later issued an executive order cancelling classes for at least two more weeks in all the state’s public schools.
Click here for press reporting on the initial directive to close the state’s schools.
Negotiating committee members soon reached agreement on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with district officials that maintained full, regular pay for all employees during the two weeks — and beyond.
“We won agreement to remain paid for the rest of the cancellation,” said Singer, who serves as our local union president. In exchange, food service workers, paraeducators and tutors would aid student meal preparation and distribution as well as support distance learning once implemented.
Members of the local union had just six weeks earlier ratified a first-ever collective bargaining agreement with their employer.
Click here for photos of education personnel in February voting for their initial contract.
By the time the governor issued additional directives keeping schools closed through late May, the economic value of the members’ MOU had increased by a factor of eight.
Singer said the agreement is a validation of members’ efforts since 2017 to make economic gains and improve working conditions. “My argument has always been that we can only do this together,” said Singer, adding that, “we have to build each other up and this is emblematic of that.”
Leaders of our local union representing school secretaries in Hartford Public Schools (HPS) found themselves in the same situation on March 16 when their district’s buildings were closed indefinitely. According to Traci Gunn, an information specialist at the Sport and Medical Sciences Academy, “everyone was scrambling during the first couple of weeks.” 
As the president of our Hartford Federation of School Secretaries, Gunn immediately reached out to AFT Connecticut Field Representative Daniel Durant for support with impact bargaining. She credited state federation leadership for providing early guidance to paraprofessional and school-related personnel (PSRP) local unions in anticipation of widespread chaos due to COVID-19.
Click here for our initial report on the crisis before it was declared a global pandemic.
Gunn also spent much of that period “rushing to get answers to our members’ questions during a time that was stressful enough.”
Collective efforts produced an MOU that maintained members’ full pay and benefits through June 30 and retroactive to the initial closure. The agreement also laid out parameters for members to work from home and assist the Capitol City’s students with “learning beyond school.”
Gunn and fellow secretaries are now able to provide a vital bridge to educators and administrators for thousands of families. 
“Not every student knows the e-mail for every teacher or their counselors or school principal. We do,” she added, explaining that facilitating digital communication was “just one way we can help right now.”
The MOU also allows members to continue supporting high school seniors with their college applications. “A lot of them were working on scholarships when the closure first happened,” said Gunn. “Now, we’re still able to help them navigate that process.”
Click here for more stories of how school support staff are making a difference during the crisis.
New London’s school board on March 27 formally approved the MOU with its education personnel. Four days our school secretaries’ union agreement was signed later by HPS’ talent management director. The governor that same afternoon signed an executive order requiring all local and regional public school districts continue paying their employees for the duration of the mandatory closure.
That action followed a weeks-long collective effort by leaders of AFT Connecticut and a coalition of unions on behalf of all board of education (BOE) employees across the state. Despite the unprecedented circumstances, it showed the value of tried and trusted solutions like collective bargaining and political engagement to solve big problems.
Click here for reporting on the directive to BOEs to continue employees’ pay featuring union leaders’ comments.

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