This Is Reno received copies of an email sent today to members of the Washoe County School District’s union, the Washoe Education Association (WEA), by the union’s leadership—President Natha Anderson and Executive Director Tom Strauss.
The email told members that the WEA had filed an OSHA complaint with the state of Nevada’s Industrial Relations Office requesting an investigation of Washoe County School District for unsafe working conditions.
“We have consulted with our legal counsel and with our leaders with the Nevada State Education Association. This is one of the legal courses of action we are taking to protect our members,” Anderson and Strauss said. “All of our members want to return to teach,” whether through the distance learning or in-person model.
The letter also acknowledges that the union knows some of its members would prefer to return to teach in person.
“[H]owever, we continue to feel strongly that an injury to one WEA member is an injury to all WEA members,” their letter read. “The WEA cannot sit back and wait for in-person classes to resume on August 17th, and for members to get sick with COVID-19.”
In response to having been “inundated” with communications from “members who are concerned about returning to teach in person,” the email said the WEA was calling upon its members to share those same stories with the WCSD Board of Trustees, its Superintendent Kristen McNeill and to news media outlets.
It advised members to use their personal email accounts, not WCSD designated accounts, and to only send their emails to the board of trustee members “who are your representatives, as sending it to more than two members of the [Board of Trustees] can sometimes create issues of who should be replying to the letter.”
The email also explicitly stated that it should not be taken as a publicity stunt.
“Too often decisions are made by our elected leaders and others that negatively impact the work of our educators, and we just deal with it, we take it,” the email read. “This is very different, since this decision deals with our health and safety.”
The complaint to OSHA came after school trustees last week voted to reopen schools.
In speaking with This Is Reno, several WCSD teachers have said that they work well beyond the hours negotiated in their contracts and questioned how the district might function were they to adhere to those hours strictly. The letter from the WEA to its members noted those negotiated contract hours and that one of the things it has “continually advocated for when it comes to the reopening plan is the need to adhere to the contract.”
WCSD said a number of its teachers and personnel are eager to return to work.
Asked during a Monday press conference held shortly after This Is Reno received screenshots of the WEA email, Governor Steve Sisolak said he expects local school districts to keep teachers and students safe and that the state had provided personal protective equipment for schools.
WCSD’s spokesperson said the district had not received a copy of the complaint.
Update Aug. 4:
The Washoe County School District today released a statement noting that it has yet to receive the WEA OSHA complaint, but asserts that the complaint is both inappropriate not supported by facts.
In the statement, the district noted that “families and staff members have expressed a strong desire to return to classrooms this fall” and that the district’s reopening plan meets or exceeds the directives set forth by Gov. Steve Sisolak, including physical distancing, provision and use of PPE, and providing options for students to learn at home.
“Medical recommendations and scientific research confirm that in person education, to the extent practical and following all safety and health protocols, provides educational, emotional, and social supports that are integral to students’ health, well-being, and development,” the district’s statement continued.
District officials said its Reopening Task Force worked closely with staff members and the community to create its reopening plans, and that the employee association leadership played a key role on that task force and “received every opportunity to express their members’ concerns during those meetings. The District responded with solutions to each concern raised by the Association and continues to work in conjunction with our administrators and employees in addressing concerns and finding solutions to those concerns.”
WCSD said it will continue the process of reopening schools for students in the coming weeks while it works with state authorities to address the potential complaint.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.