New teachers union at Park City High School advocates for increased COVID safety measures

(Tanzi Propst/Park Record)
(Tanzi Propst/Park Record)

A group of Park City High School teachers has joined a new union to advocate for teacher safety amid surging COVID-19 cases in the community. They say the situation at the high school has become untenable.

“With the alarming rise in COVID cases, we are concerned that — we don’t understand why we have to wait for a massive outbreak at the high school to shut down,” said Paula McKay, a social studies teacher with 21 years of experience in the district.

She and two other high school teachers said in an interview last week that they joined the union to advocate for greater COVID-related safety measures, including the ability to social distance in their classrooms.

“Individually, as teachers, we felt we weren’t being heard,” McKay said. “And for some, (the existing union) wasn’t able to help us. They were unable to move the needle with people that make the decisions.”

The teachers reported that 10 Park City High School teachers had joined a new Park City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. AFT is an affiliate of the largest federation of labor unions in the United States, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO.

The new union is dwarfed in size by the Park City Education Association, which has nearly 300 members, according to PCEA Vice President Aaron Webb.

Unions are responsible for negotiating employment contracts and advocating for staff members’ interests, and the AFT members say that PCEA has not done enough for teacher safety during the pandemic.

Webb pushed back on that assertion, saying that he worked personally on committees that enacted layered COVID mitigation protocols, including the use of personal protective equipment and an emphasis on hand washing and wearing masks.

He said he and other PCEA representatives are involved in crafting COVID-mitigation protocols and evaluating how the school district is handling the pandemic.

He said that spread of the virus has largely occurred in the community, rather than in schools, a claim that has been borne out in the data the district reports and supported by local, state and federal health officials.

But with cases surging in Utah, the statewide Utah Education Association last week called on secondary schools to move to fully remote learning between Thanksgiving and winter breaks to stave off a potential surge in new cases after families convene for the holidays.

For McKay and other AFT members, that’s too little, too late. McKay said she wants to see the high school transition to a hybrid model in which she’d teach half of her students in person one day, and the other half the next.

Other districts have used different hybrid models, the teachers said, like staggering which grades come to school each day.

A hybrid model would better allow for 6 feet between students — and teachers — in high school classrooms and would increase her connection with students who have opted for fully remote learning this year, she said.

“It would allow us to build stronger relationships with our students,” McKay said, which would help if school does move fully online at some point. “… I have some remote students that I have no idea what they look like, have never talked to them.”

Webb said a hybrid model comes with challenges for families with working parents, and district officials have said that having students out in the community unsupervised might lead to higher rates of COVID transmission.

McKay said that hundreds of high school students are already at least partially receiving their education outside of the school building. She added that the hybrid model AFT is seeking would apply only to the high school, where students are old enough not to require child care.

AFT is also pushing for more time for teachers to support online learners and for increased transparency in how COVID cases are reported at schools. The union alleges the high school had more than 15 active COVID cases at once, which is above the state guideline for when schools should move to remote learning.

Superintendent Jill Gildea has said the district evaluates all available data to weigh the risks and benefits of remaining open for in-person learning. She has said the 15-case threshold is a guideline that needs to be reviewed with local and state health officials, taking into context the local environment.

In an email, Gildea said the district has a long history with PCEA but that districts are prohibited by law from endorsing any employee association. She added that the district would continue to listen to the concerns of all of its employees regardless of their membership in an employee association.

Teachers have been concerned with the district’s COVID protocols since before schools opened in the fall, though the significant case spike in schools they feared has largely not materialized. The Park City Board of Education has said the majority of teachers in the district support the reopening plans.

Webb said that the new Park City chapter of AFT formed after some teachers demanded work actions like a strike that weren’t supported by members of PCEA.

AFT members dispute that, saying they didn’t demand a work action, but that they wanted to keep that as an option.

A statewide group of teachers organized such a work action on Thursday. The so-called “test out” called on teachers to use a sick day to seek a COVID-19 test as a means of drawing attention to the importance of securing increased safety measures.

It is unclear how many teachers participated in the action in Park City, with multiple officials declining to respond to requests for teacher absentee numbers.

Webb estimated that a handful of teachers participated, while an AFT representative put the number at “a few.”

It was unclear whether the district would seek disciplinary action against the teachers who participated.

The future for the fledgling union is also unclear. Its members indicated that they wanted a seat at the table to discuss COVID protocols with district officials, but Webb said that was unlikely.

He added that he would listen to input from all of his colleagues regardless of whether they are members of PCEA.

PCEA negotiated a compensation package this year that included $2.4 million in total compensation increases over four years. AFT members said they had no issues with the compensation negotiations.

The district is compelled to collectively bargain with an association that represents more than 50% of the labor group, which PCEA does. There is no guarantee AFT will be invited to participate in future negotiations.

Megan McKenna, a high school science teacher and AFT member, said there’s a common misperception that AFT wants to shut down schools. She said the opposite is true: that by pursuing a hybrid style of learning, schools will be able to meet in-person for longer.

“This is not something we wanted to do or have time to do,” McKenna said of the effort to organize a new union. “This is something we need to do.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with comment from Superintendent Jill Gildea.

More Like This, Tap A Topic

Wasatch County School District raises taxes

During the hearing, Cindy Cossairt of Heber City offered her observation that “the education system is turning into socialism” because “you’re asking neighbors to pay for neighbors’ children.”

See more

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Park City and Summit County make the Park Record's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.