WEST WARWICK — With just a month and a half to go before the beginning of the school year, the West Warwick School Committee this week unanimously approved a Memorandum of Agreement aimed at ensuring a safe environment when buildings finally reopen.
“We’re really proud to put this MOA forward,” Superintendent Karen Tarasevich said of the agreement, adopted as an amendment to the West Warwick Teachers’ Alliance contract. “As far as we know, we’re the first district in the state to come to an agreement with labor and management regarding these specific issues relative to COVID-19 and the reopening of schools.”
The health and safety of students and staff is a top priority for the district as it prepares to reopen, Tarasevich said. And the MOA approved during Wednesday’s school committee meeting will go a long way in supporting that.
The agreement outlines things like use of personal protective equipment, as well as how to handle coronavirus-related leaves of absence.
Under the agreement, any teachers’ union member who contracts COVID-19 or who is forced to quarantine because of the virus will lose neither pay nor accrued sick leave.
“It’s a step in the direction of helping people do the right thing,” Tarasevich said, noting that the agreement reserves the district’s right to request a second medical opinion.
“When we’re sick we’ve been told, and the science and data supports, that we should stay home,” she continued. “In good conscience, I can’t recommend to penalize people for doing the right thing.”
Teachers who test positive for the virus won’t be allowed back into school buildings without proof that they’ve since tested negative. Teachers may also be required to submit test results if someone in the district with whom they’ve been in contact has contracted COVID-19.
The agreement also states that teachers may be required to undergo non-invasive symptom screening and body temperature monitoring, and the district will mandate the use of proper personal protective equipment, including face masks.
“There are a million details to reopening school, and every single one is important,” Tarasevich added, thanking Sean Doyle, president of the West Warwick Teachers’ Alliance, for working with administrators on the agreement.
Luis Colon, vice chair of the school committee, said he’s “over the moon” about the agreement. He said the district should be “truly proud of” the MOA and the forethought that went into creating it.
“To be the first district in the state, potentially in the country, that has something like this — this is an MOA that has people clambering for the template,” he said. “When we’ve already got this agreement, and everyone else has not even thought about it, much less come to the table, to me that just continues to speak volumes about what the district is doing.”
Colon lauded the teachers' union for its cooperation, as well as Tarasevich and other district administrators for consistently being “ahead of the curve.”
“The future is uncertain,” Tarasevich added, “and it’s these types of agreements, this type of collaboration, that’s going to get us through a lot of the procedures and policies that we need to work out to protect everybody.”
In other business, the school committee on Wednesday unanimously approved amendments to the West Warwick Teachers’ Union contract that will save the district enough money to hire back each teacher laid off as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
Before the pandemic hit, the district had projected an overall expenditure increase of around $2.8 million, of which $1.9 million was expected to be covered by additional state aid. Forced to face the possibility that it won’t be getting that funding boost from the state, after all, the school committee last month laid off six members of the teachers' union.
Currently in year three, the five-year teachers’ union contract had included a 1.5 percent salary increase for this year. But by conceding 1.1 percent of that anticipated increase, the district will save enough to bring back to their original positions those teachers recently laid off.
“As you all well know, several weeks ago we had to layoff several teachers because of our uncertain financial situation,” Tarasevich said. “The working capital from that concession of salary for this current year gives us the ability to hire all of those laid off teachers back.
Tarasevich said she’s “beyond words of gratitude.”
“In a year when they didn’t even need to do anything, they did,” she said of the teachers.
School committee members took turns Wednesday thanking the teachers and Doyle for being willing to amend their contract.
“We are very, very fortunate in this town, in that we have teachers that really care about what they can do for the kids that we have in our schools,” member Joseph DiMartino said. “It’s a phenomenal thing that they’ve done. It’s unheard of.”
Member Susan St. Amand echoed that.
“This is just unprecedented,” she said. “Even as I’m talking about it now, I just have this sense of warmth and gratitude for living in such a community and being part of such a special group.”
Encouraged by both agreements approved Wednesday, Colon promised he’d work in the future on improving the salaries of West Warwick’s teachers, who are some of the lowest paid teachers in Rhode Island.
“I’m committing myself to be willing to work with [Tarasevich and Doyle] and whoever else we have to work with to see what we can do… to try to help the teachers get up to where they should be,” Colon said. “We want to work with you and try to do what we can to treat you guys right and to respect your profession.”