Michigan teachers union vows to protect school staff in COVID-19 disputes

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Education Association says it's prepared to stand with local teachers' unions that collectively decide school districts haven't done enough to safeguard students and staff as they push to reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Michigan Education Association is the state's largest school employee union. At an emergency meeting Tuesday night, its board of directors adopted a motion that says, in part, the union supports local associations that "choose to take collective action in order to protect the health and safety of their students and staff."

With many school districts' first day still about four weeks away, the motion was "proactive," said David Crim, spokesman for the Michigan Education Association. It could potentially come into play if local associations collectively decide conditions aren't safe ahead of the first day of in-person instruction, he said.

"We have the resources to protect them, if need be," Crim said.

School districts across the state are wrestling with how to educate students during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as Michigan experienced an uptick in new cases in recent weeks. Many districts have decided to offer only virtual learning to begin the year amid fears about the spreading virus. But others haven't decided or have advanced plans to offer some level of in-person instruction.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has voiced concerns about schools reopening to in-person instruction this fall and opposition to plans to mandate all schools reopen.

The GOP-controlled Michigan House passed bills in July that would have effectively required schools to offer in-person instruction for younger students. On Monday, President Donald Trump, a Republican, tweeted, "OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!"

In its new motion, the Michigan Education Association calls on local associations, "if needed," to "file a demand to bargain about their employer’s COVID-19 preparedness and response plan to ensure the health and safety of our students and educators."

The MEA represents about 120,000 teachers, education support professionals, higher education faculty and staff, school retirees and aspiring educators, according to a press release.

The American Federation of Teachers Michigan said Tuesday it has several conditions that must be met before K-12 schools resume in-person instruction.

Union leaders want a district’s safety plan to meet standards established by public health experts, "common sense" human resource policies so no employees feel pressure to come to school when they should be staying at home, and a collaboratively-developed plan for virtual/hybrid learning that does not involve privatization.

David Hecker, president of AFT Michigan, said the union views collective action as a last resort and hopes it will not be necessary.

"But as our national union announced last week, if a local union deems it necessary to protect the health and safety of students and staff, we will support them," Hecker said.  "We sincerely hope we are able to reach agreements with employers and educators are not put in that position."

Jennifer Chambers contributed.