Teachers union accuses Orange school district of disregarding COVID-19 safety protocols

Two sides are at an impasse in negotiations

ORLANDO, Fla. – This new spring semester in Orange County Public Schools started with record-high case numbers, peaking on Jan. 3, and with another 651 new confirmed cases reported Tuesday alone, according to OCPS’s COVID-19 dashboard.

The spike comes as the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association and the district struggle over COVID-19 health and safety protocols in negotiations.

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Back in October, both sides presented their arguments ahead of a special magistrate and both sides claim the magistrate ruled in their favor.

“The special magistrate ruled on this and ruled on both issues in favor of the district,” said Scott Howatt, spokesperson for OCPS. “He supported what we have done and how (we) went about doing (this) with the health and safety manual.”

“No, he didn’t. He actually did not rule in their favor,” said Wendy Doromal, president of the OCCTA. “He ruled primarily that we should have a (Memorandum of Understanding). He amended it to say it should be enforceable.”

The details of that MOU were supposed to be finalized at a special school board hearing.

Teachers, like John Martinez, claim the district is not following through with COVID-19 safety and health protocols. He’s a third grade teacher at a Title I school and part of the teachers union.

“These are health and safety issues. We are kind of at a boiling point right now. That’s why 800 teachers have resigned since the beginning of the year,” Martinez said.

As a third grade teacher, he said the 12 cloth masks the districts send each week do not fit the kids well and are gone within a day.

“A bundle of 12 might make it one day,” Martinez said. “I was on a meeting this week with teachers and they are spending their own money to go buy wipes and sanitizer and masks, my partner teacher just ordered masks online.”

Martinez also claims there isn’t cleaning and disinfecting happening like the district claims.

“You can ask any teacher. There’s no disinfecting, there’s no cleaning,” Martinez said. “There’s a janitorial shortage just like there’s a bus driver shortage. Just like there’s a teacher shortage. And there’s no services being wiped down.”

Howatt disagreed.

“We have all of those things. We have plenty of masks, we have plenty of cleaning supplies, we have 100 temporary custodians that we hired that we can deploy where we are lacking the personnel to clean so we have all of those resources in place,” Howatt said.

Doromal issued this statement to the members of the bargaining unit on Wednesday:

“Teachers report that they have been told by their principals they no longer have to adhere to safety guidelines because there is no MOU this year! These are the crucial issues that are at stake in the disputed agreement—an MOU that the District wants to be able to change at any time to evade accountability.

“Health and Safety are not an OCPS priority. Otherwise, the District would not have postponed the upcoming impasse on these very issues that had been already scheduled for January 18, 2022. OCCTA never agreed to delay this matter. District leaders do not seem to understand the sense of urgency as this pandemic rages, and just how unsafe teachers, parents and students feel in the schools and worksites.

“Health and Safety are not an OCPS priority. OCPS has been delaying health and safety decisions since the beginning of the school year, and is forcing teachers to again resolve through impasse the same issues that were already decided by a Magistrate last year. It is disheartening that teachers must fight for clear and enforceable health and safety rights.”

These discrepancies were expected to hopefully be resolved at that impasse hearing with the Orange County School Board, originally scheduled for next Tuesday, but now postponed with no date in sight.

The school district issued a statement Wednesday regarding that cancellation:

“The hearing before the School Board regarding the health and safety Memorandum of Understanding impasse, originally set for Jan. 18, 2022, must be rescheduled due the availability of some School Board members. The School Board affirmed at last night’s meeting that they want all members of the Board available to hear arguments regarding the recommendations from the Special Magistrate. A new date will be set as soon as possible.”