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A young boy is wearing a medical mask talking with friends at school.

Reopening Schools Will Take Community Collaboration

by Ellen Gallin Procida

Maximizing your labor-management and community relationships can help address the challenges we all face when in reopening schools. No matter how strong or contentious your labor-management relationships have been in the past, labor and management need each other to reopen schools in a smart, safe way.

While collective bargaining is the major problem-solving vehicle used in public education, labor and management also routinely partner in committees or teams that work together to resolve problems and disputes. Many pieces have been written which go into great detail about the challenges of reopening schools. Those details are extremely important. 

This article is a tool designed to help keep four key themes playing in your head as you sit around the virtual bargaining table. When tensions start to surface as you work toward detailed plans, these themes will hopefully help you take a breath and refocus on why you are there. 

Come Together

Start by acknowledging and celebrating what you have accomplished together. Recognize that your school community found a way, however imperfect, to provide education to students in the middle of a pandemic when education had to take place at home. 

Plan a way for the community to celebrate their teachers and all school personnel, and a way for the educators to thank the community. Remember those you have lost. Joining in these ways will help strengthen the relationships you will need to reopen schools together. Build on these joint efforts to explore ways to pursue the funding you will need to reopen schools.

We Can Work It Out

Use the labor–management team model. Empower teams where labor, management, and, in some instances, the community, are equally represented to “come together” to address issues surrounding school reopening.

There are no easy answers to the challenges you face. Even within the same district, when it comes to reopening schools, one size definitely does not fit all. Forming or building on existing labor-management teams at every level brings the perspective and expertise of all school personnel together to brainstorm, problem solve and develop plans. 

Use labor-management teams to gather information by developing surveys or organizing town halls. Collaborate to develop other ways to gather information. Leverage labor–management teams to address specific needs such as health and safety, scheduling, internal and external communication; budgeting, curriculum, technology (addressing the technical divide, equity, bandwidth), community outreach and others. Labor-management committee work will be the ongoing vehicle to understand what is happening in the field and to make necessary adjustments.

The Long and Winding Road

As in any crisis, this is not the time to set aside the years of hard work and the foundations you have built. Bargain agreements for the crisis that keep the existing collective bargaining agreement in place and explicitly state that the terms you are bargaining due to the COVID-19 pandemic are limited to this emergency (blanket or bridge agreements). Lessons learned from reopening schools during the pandemic can be incorporated into your agreements at a later time if the parties choose to do so. Make it a living document so that it can change as your situation evolves. 

Carry That Weight

When schools reopen, whenever that is and whatever that looks like, students and personnel will be carrying a heavy emotional weight. In the context of reopening schools, the emotional strain of this pandemic cannot be underestimated. This emotional weight will manifest itself in the school setting in a variety of ways, some of which we cannot yet imagine. 

I am not a psychologist, guidance counselor or nurse, but more than 30 years of teaching students and adults leaves me no doubt that every school must have, at the very least, one school nurse, and a sufficient number of guidance counselors in addition to clinical school social workers.

Before school reopens, discussions and professional development about the emotional weight everyone will be carrying is essential. The teachers, parents, principals, assistant principals, bus drivers, school secretaries, paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, students and everyone else involved in the school community need support. 

As we come together as a community, we can help reopen schools safely. In case you haven’t noticed, the subtitles above are the names of Beatles songs. The names of those songs can be our anthems as we come together for the kids.  


Ellen Gallin Procida

  • Director, Labor Management Relations Programs: Public Sector Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution

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