K12 teacher strikes pose challenges for administrators

Statewide teacher strikes and walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and Kentucky left students out of school for days while superintendents scrambled to communicate with parents, to make up missed class time and to reschedule state tests.

In West Virginia, all schools in the state’s 55 districts were closed for nine days in February as teachers went on strike to protest low salaries and insurance premium increases. The strike ended in March after the governor signed legislation to give teachers a 5 percent pay raise and promised to create a task force to address the insurance issues.

By state law, all of the missed days must be made up, so district leaders had to revise calendars. Most districts cancelled spring break and professional development days or added days in June, says Steven Paine, West Virginia state superintendent of schools.

“All 55 superintendents stood united with their teachers” Paine says, in that they wanted a swift resolution to the issue. “Everyone’s goal was to get back to school.”

Compensating for missed time

In Oklahoma, April’s nine-day teacher strike led districts to miss the state testing window. The state department of education extended the timeframe by one week to allow compliance.

“It’s been really hard because, as superintendents, we’re not the ones driving this” says Rick Cobb, superintendent of the Mid-Del School District in Oklahoma City. “I don’t know a single superintendent who thought this should go on for more than a couple of days.”

Community members and elected leaders looked to superintendents for information about plans to address teachers’ demands, “but as superintendents, we’re not in charge of that” Cobb says. “We’re not the ones saying ‘Let’s take another day off,’ but looking at the number of teacher absences, we couldn’t have held school if we wanted to.”

Problems also arose in terms of keeping members of the administrative staff working, due to different contract stipulations. During the first week of the strike, Cobb says he tried to give his cabinet tasks so they could come to work. But during the second week, many people were sent home.

Cancelling school also meant that many students did not receive their usual meals, Cobb says, as 70 percent of his district’s 14,700 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. In terms of the impact on students, “I think we’ll see some kids come back and get into a routine right away, but some kids will struggle with that” Cobb says.

It may be especially difficult for elementary and special education teachers, who work hard to create routines for students, he adds.

Preparing for a work stoppage

The success of recent strikes is encouraging teachers around the country to pursue labor stoppage over wages and other issues.

Administrators in states with or without collective bargaining agreements must find ways to listen to teacher concerns and involve them in school decision-making, says Jon Shelton, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies teacher strikes.

“Teachers are willing to take action to improve their working conditions, and those under which students learn” Shelton says. “If I were a superintendent or principal, I’d work really hard to try to bring in teacher voices in an authentic way.”

When a strike looms, superintendents should create a strategy for communicating accurate information to students and parents quickly about school closures, Paine says.

Administrators should also find a cohort of trusted peers to consult with, Cobb says. “If you’re in a situation like this, you’re going to make a lot of decisions, and you’re not going to make them all right” Cobb says. All actions taken should be intentional and visible, and with the goal of caring for students and employees.

One regret Cobb has was not communicating with parents and staff ahead of time about how a strike would impact the district calendar. Another was failing to get the school board and administrative organizations more involved in negotiations to end the strike.

“As a superintendent I can’t go to the capitol and move the needle far, but as a group, we can make a bit of a difference” he says.

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