St. Croix Central High, St. Croix Educational Complex, and John H. Woodson Jr. High School are closed Friday as students protest in support of teacher walkouts over conditions at the island’s schools.
The V.I. Education Department announced the closures just before 10 a.m. Friday, about an hour after they said Claude O. Markoe Elementary School would be closed for a third day as teachers continue their protest against substandard working conditions.
Bus transportation will be provided and parents who transport their children to school are asked to pick up their students as soon as possible, it said.
The job action by members of the American Federation of Teachers Local 1826 — who have been without a contract since Aug. 31 — began on Wednesday, with teachers calling in sick and then picketing to voice their grievances.
These include excessive heat in classrooms, water and electrical issues, large class sizes without paraprofessional support, insufficient school buses, rodents and termites, and a lack of building maintenance, paraprofessionals, supplies, internet connectivity, school nurses, equipment, employees, and a special education director, and broken or missing kitchen equipment.
The excessive heat is of particular concern, with temperatures regularly topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit, according to union leaders.
“We have fans, but they blow hot air, which doesn’t provide any relief. Our students can’t learn or concentrate, and teachers can’t teach in such stifling conditions,” Rosa Soto-Thomas, St. Croix’s AFT president, said in a recent statement.
“Our students and teachers deserve conditions conducive to learning and teaching, but currently that does not exist. The only way to advance the negotiation process is for the government to agree to bargaining dates, get serious at the table and collaborate on what’s best for everyone in every school and activity center,” she said.
The walkout has so far affected elementary schools on St. Croix as well as John H. Woodson Junior High School.
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., who is in Washington, D.C. this week attending policy meetings, issued a statement Thursday in response to the job action, blaming the excessive heat in classrooms on climate change.
“While many of us, including some of our teachers and the parents of our students, have attended these same facilities without air conditioning, what has changed now is the climate,” the governor said. “Just as other jurisdictions across the nation, we are grappling with climate change and its impacts,” he added.
“It is frustrating to work in less-than-ideal conditions. As we work together to address these issues, we need to do so with consideration to the most important matter at hand, and that is the instruction of our students who are losing critical instruction days as a result of these job actions,” Bryan said.
In a press release issued Wednesday night, the Education Department said it had met with union officials to address the teachers’ concerns.
“During the meeting, the VIDE addressed the impact of the recent heatwave on school operations,” the release stated. However, due to “extensive damage and loss of devices, which has resulted in over $3 million worth of assets, schools territory-wide are unable to revert to virtual learning as a means of addressing the heat in classrooms,” it said.
“The VIDE seeks the full cooperation of parents and students in promptly returning laptops and MiFi devices to the respective school of the student or the main office headquarters. As previously announced, the most affected schools will begin adjusted schedules on Monday, Sept. 25,” according to the release.
On Tuesday, the department announced abbreviated schedules for some St. Croix schools after the island endured the year’s highest daily temperatures 12 days in a row.
St. Croix Central High, the Educational Complex/Career and Technical Education, John H. Woodson Junior High, Juanita Gardine and Eulalie Rivera Elementary schools will see shorter school days.
Classes at the two St. Croix high schools will begin at 7:40 a.m. and dismiss at 1:05 p.m.; Woodson classes start at 8 a.m. and end at 1:30 p.m.; the two elementary schools — Gardine and Rivera — will start classes at 7:30 a.m. and dismiss at 1:15 p.m.
The Education Department has said that this week’s missed school days will be made up in December.