A statement issued by the Education Department following a series of protests on St. Croix shows support for the concerns that its faculty, staff and students have brought to the forefront, describing them as “long-standing issues that have plagued the department for years.”
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. Saturday, Commissioner of Education Dionne Wells-Hedrington thanked the AFT for its concerns.
“Regarding recent events, the VIDE appreciates the accountability that our faculty, staff, students, parents, and our community are placing on us to address these long-standing issues that have plagued the department for many years. We understand that the demands made by our educators are rooted in a genuine desire to improve not only their working conditions but also the quality of education provided to our students,” Wells-Hedrington said, adding that the department remains “steadfast” in making sure the territory’s educators have the necessary resources, support and fair working conditions needed to do their jobs.
Though important, the protests still put a dent in student instructional hours, which now have to be made up, according to officials, who said all St. Croix district students and teachers must report to school on Monday, Sept. 25. Make-ups also take into consideration the impact the ongoing heatwave has had on school campuses, resulting in the following abbreviated schedule:
- Juanita Gardine and Eulalie Rivera PreK-8 Schools: These schools will begin the school day at 7:30 a.m. and end at 12:30 p.m.
- John H. Woodson Jr. High School: Will begin at 8 a.m. and end at 1:15 p.m.
- St. Croix Central High School; St. Croix Educational Complex; and the Career & Educational Technical Center: Will begin at 7:40 a.m. and end at 1:05 p.m.
“The job action has led to a decrease in instructional hours, causing learning loss due to the absence of teachers. Consequently, the school year will need to be extended with extra hours, and in certain instances, additional days, to fulfill the necessary minimum instructional criteria. This job action also affects the community since parents are frequently required to pick up their children and make special arrangements during this period. Furthermore, businesses in the area are experiencing repercussions as a result. By working together, we can overcome the challenges we face and ensure a brighter future for our students,” said St. Croix District Superintendent Ericilda Ottley-Herman.
The department said it is working on solutions to the issues raised by educators and students, with a focus on improving working conditions and providing necessary resources. VIDE will host a special public presentation, “Education 360: A Comprehensive Reform Blueprint,” on Thursday, Sept. 28 to provide updates and clarify information surrounding federal funding, maintenance timelines and academic recovery efforts, among other things.
Students joined the protests on Friday, resulting in the closure of both St. Croix high schools, along with John H. Woodson Junior High and Claude O. Markoe Elementary. Ottley-Herman said in Saturday’s statement that student voices should be heard and carry weight, but should be expressed safely, which means staying within the campus boundaries.
“Both high school leadership teams collaborated with their staff and the Virgin Islands Police Department to ensure the safety of students who attended classes and participated in protests. The primary entrance gates of each school site remained open until the campus was clear of any potential issues,” Ottley-Herman said.
“Equally important are the voices of our students,” added Wells-Hedrington. “We acknowledge the student protests that have arisen because of the teacher job actions. We recognize their right to express their concerns about school conditions that impact their education. We also recognize their right to engage in peaceful acts of protest that do not pose a risk or harm to themselves or others. We look forward to engaging in open and respectful dialogue with students. Students, your input matters, and we are committed to creating opportunities for you to be heard. The VIDE will establish upcoming meetings for students to share their concerns and suggestions regarding their education.”