Parents divided on merits of West Ada ‘sickout’

Parker O’Callaghan and Sophie Yenko, students at Rocky Mountain High, talk at Meridian’s Settlers Park on their day off. School was canceled on Mon. Oct. 19 when around 650 teachers requested sick days to protest in-person teaching during high-risk for COVID-19. Sami Edge/IdahoEdNews

MERIDIAN — The play area at Settlers Park teemed with children in the early hours of Monday afternoon. Discordant jingles and bangs echoed from the music corner, where little hands pounded on outdoor instruments, and mixed with the shrieks of children on the nearby jungle gym. 

The crowd was unusual for a Monday, said Amanda Burke, who sat on a bench keeping a causal eye on her 9-year-old. Of course, this Monday was hardly typical: It was a surprise holiday for students in Idaho’s largest school district, prompted by an impasse between the teachers’ union and district leadership over COVID-19 safety. 

The West Ada school board wants students to continue with part-time in-person learning, despite news last week that Ada County has been elevated to a “red” level for high risk of COVID-19 spread.  The union says that’s too dangerous. It rallied hundreds of educators to call in sick in protest, prompting a district-wide shutdown on Monday and Tuesday. 

Parents at Settlers Park, and across the 38,000 student district, were divided on the merits of the fight.

“I understand the teachers concern, but they didn’t even give in-school learning a shot,” said Burke, who works at a local hospital. “…Kids are germy. But at their age, they’re very resilient. If they just stay home when they’re sick, I don’t see the numbers going up that high.”

Addison Reyes, left, and Rilynn Burke play at Settlers Park during their day off school on Monday. Reyes attends a virtual charter school, but Burke had the day off because of the teacher sickout in West Ada.

Some took to social media to post pictures in red-shirts, using the hashtag #redmeansremote to support teachers’ demonstration.

“It’s unfortunate that our kids have to miss out on education because the district won’t follow safety protocols,” said Jenna Zanelli, who has two students in the district’s online learning program. “But I’m very glad teachers are standing up for themselves.”

Parent Ben Faux said his frustrations stem from the school board, for what he considers a lack of preparation for the 2020-21 school year, and trustees’ reticence to make difficult decisions.  But he isn’t happy with the teacher sickouts, either.

“Teachers are essential,” Faux said. “…If teachers are afraid, they need to look for other jobs.”

Beyond the ideological levels of the closures are parents caught in the struggle of day-to-day realities.

Nick Campbell took his six-year-old daughter to the park during Monday’s closure, which fell on one of his days off.  He was frustrated when he learned about the looming “sickout” last week.

Already this year, Campbell’s daughter has gone from virtual learning to part-time, then full-time classroom instruction. Now the school board wants her back to part-time, which means Campbell will have to re-enroll her in daycare, then foot that bill. Sickout cancellations mean she won’t learn at all for the first few days of this week.

“I don’t think it’s fair to any of the kids,” Campbell said. “Just the entire situation.”

James, 3, plays at a busy Settlers Park on Monday when students in the surrounding Meridian area were out of school due to a teacher sickout in protest of COVID-19 protocols.
Sami Edge

About Sami Edge

Reporter Sami Edge, a University of Oregon graduate, joined Idaho Education News in 2019. She is a 2019 Education Writers Association fellow reporting on Latino student outcomes in Idaho. She also is a 2019 American Press Institute fellow. She can be reached at [email protected].

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