This speech was delivered on Monday, January 24th by Patrick Miller – President of the Henrico Education Association – on recent changes of COVID policy and the HEA’s demands for workplace safety

We have been told time and time again that these times we are currently doing our best to survive are “unprecedented.” I disagree. The exploitation of workers is far from “unprecedented” in a right to work state notoriously hostile to anyone who strives to improve their working conditions.

The exploitation of workers is not “unprecedented,” and it is not just the pandemic that has created the crisis we face today. Rather, this pandemic, paired with the continued exploitation of education workers, wall-to-wall, from the classroom to the clinic, from the bus ramps to the basketball courts, have profoundly damaged our working conditions.

And our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. When scores of teachers are forced to give up their planning time to cover classes, poor working conditions for educators become poor learning conditions for children. And when a despotic governor puts his political career above the health of his constituents, unsafe working conditions for educators become unsafe learning conditions for children. 

The exploitation of workers is not “unprecedented” and neither is pitting parents against educators, and to that point I must repeat: Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. We call upon our districts to put the health, safety, and education of their students above the political whims of the executive.

We need clear guidelines for school closures. No teacher, no administrator, no parent, no child is demanding all schools return to virtual learning. Nor does anyone wish this for an entire school district. However, when hundreds of educators are home sick, quarantining, or caring for sick family members, we cannot reasonably expect all learning to take place in person until there are enough healthy professionals capable of staffing our buildings. The lack of consistent policies around masks, testing, and closures puts lives at risk, especially the lives of disabled, immunocompromised, and vulnerable members of our community.

I applaud my fellow educators in Chesterfied for exercising their rights with today’s walk-in, and my fellow educators in Richmond for winning collective bargaining from their school board. If we are serious about creating equitable working and learning conditions in our schools, then our health, safety, and dignity will need to be legally protected in a collectively bargained contract. Without these protections, all we can do now is demand freedom: the freedom to teach and learn in schools guided by health, safety, and justice. 

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