It’s time for the education and medical communities to unite

Bruce Lear proposes several ways Iowa’s doctors and teachers could cooperate to advocate for safe conditions in schools. -promoted by Laura Belin

It’s been a summer ride. First, there was a tingle of unease. Then there were questions, and more questions, left unanswered. Later, the Iowa Department of Education issued a vague, incomplete statement. Finally, the governor issued a proclamation filled with hype instead of hope. It was the summer of angst for parents and for educators.

Now, it’s time to stop defining the problem and start trying to solve it.

The problem is both simple and complex.  The simple part is we have both a governor and a president who views our educators and our children through the lens of skewed COVID-19 numbers and regards them as dispensable.

The complex part is that Iowa currently has a positivity rate of around 15 percent, and schools are being asked to be the one place where by some miracle large gatherings won’t spawn a derecho of virus.

It’s a fantasy Disney wouldn’t dare concoct and yet, the twin science deniers Donald Trump and Kim Reynolds persist.

It’s time to get their attention and turn angst into action.

I’ve told this story before.

There once was a farmer who desperately needed a mule. He heard one of his neighbors had the best mule in the county so he went over to buy it. His neighbor said, “Yup he’s a great mule, but you have to treat him with tender loving care to get him to work.” The farmer, bought the mule, took it home and hitched it up.

The mule wouldn’t budge. Remembering what his neighbor said, he lifted the mule’s ear and whispered sweet nothings. Still the mule wouldn’t move.

He called the neighbor who sold him the mule, and he came over. He assessed the situation and walked up to the mule with an axe handle and hit the mule right between the eyes. 

“Wait, I thought you said to treat him with tender loving care,” the buyer yelled.

“I did, but first you need to get his attention,” the seller replied.

We’ve tried stern letters to the governor. We’ve written our own obituaries. We’ve signed petitions and done car protests. She won’t listen.

Thankfully, the Iowa State Education Association (the state’s largest teachers union) and the Iowa City School District and its association are suing the governor and the Iowa Department of Education over local control. The Des Moines Public Schools will soon file suit as well. A hearing in the ISEA case is scheduled for September 3.

This prudent legal step will get attention, but there also needs to be an organic grassroots movement at the same time.

Some have asked, why doesn’t the union just declare a statewide teacher strike? The answer is both simple and tragic.

When Republicans butchered Iowa’s 40-year-old public sector collective bargaining law in 2017, they left the prohibition against public sector strikes intact and strengthened the penalties for both individual teachers and the union.

The penalties for an individual teacher include a $500 fine for each day on strike, possible jail time, immediate discharge from work, ineligibility for re-employment to the same employer for one year, and possible license revocation.

For the union, the penalties include up to a $10,000 fine for each day on strike, possible jail time of up to 6 months for leaders, and decertification of the union for two years.

We can sit in our Lazyboys and say those penalties are unenforceable, but in this political climate, does anyone imagine they wouldn’t try?

So, a strike might not be in the cards.

But my guess is the medical community is largely aligned with educators. Those are two pretty powerful groups. When united, their power could be awesome to behold.

If a district follows the Trump/Reynolds wish, declares educators “essential workers,” and orders them back to school without sufficient quarantine time, teachers need to call their local physicians and get a note saying, “It is medically necessary for ___________ to be absent from work for ______________.”

If a school district wants to force someone back to work under these conditions after seeing a physician’s note, the staff member needs a copy of the doctor’s note, which should also be sent to the local ISEA director. In my 27 years representing educators, districts may fuss and fume a bit, but a doctor’s note is gold and the district generally backs down.

Another option is to look in the master contract, or in the handbook or board policy, and find language that deals with how to report an unsafe environment. Most will have a clause that allows the reporting of an unsafe condition.  This is usually used to report something like a weak ceiling or an uneven floor, but the language can be used to identify a classroom that has a COVID-19 case. A doctor testifying at a school board meeting would be very powerful.

Another way to get the attention of a local board and news organizations is to stage some type of protest at a regular school board meeting. Informational picketing with parents, the medical community, and educators is legal as long as it does not disrupt the meeting.

An informational teach-in is also legal, if it’s done on public property and is peaceful. Teachers and doctors speaking about science and risk would again be very powerful.

Any of these tactics need to arise from the grassroots with parents leading the movement and teachers adding their expertise. I know educators are patient and want to be loyal to their school district, but individual health and professional health are on the line if a school is unsafe.

I’m now specifically talking to educators. First, keep everything within legal bounds to protect your health and your profession. If you have a bright idea, check on it first before letting it shine. If you haven’t joined ISEA, do it now!

The time for being pushed around by politicians is over. The education and medical communities need to fight back, and the time is now.

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and recently retired after 38 years of being connected to public schools. He was a teacher for eleven years and a regional director for Iowa State Education Association for 27 years.

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