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Classrooms in Columbus, Ohio, are empty on 1st day back as teachers strike

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today was supposed to be back-to-school day in Ohio's largest school district. But just days before students were set to return to their classrooms in Columbus, Ohio, the district's teachers' union voted to strike. This came after multiple negotiations by the Board of Education and the union failed to produce a contract.

Regina Fuentes is one of those teachers striking. She has taught in Columbus City schools for more than 20 years, and she's a spokesperson for the union. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

REGINA FUENTES: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Paint a picture of the conditions that you and other teachers are working in. What made things so extreme that you decided to strike?

FUENTES: Well, you know, we have been pushing the district to fix our old buildings for a very long time. We're dealing with buildings that are way too hot in the warm months and way too cold in the cold months. And, you know, we have reported problems of bad plumbing, doors that don't lock, windows that don't shut or open. And, you know, we're just tired of waiting. We want them to be held accountable when it comes to fixing these problems and not just make empty promises.

SHAPIRO: Over the more than 20 years that you've been teaching in Columbus City schools, what kind of impact have you seen this have on students?

FUENTES: I mean, you just can't imagine, you know - and getting into class sizes - having a class full of 36 kids and it's 90 degrees inside the classroom. And, you know, they're not focused. They're going to start passing out. And, you know, they can't focus on what's happening. Or if it's too cold, you know, they're worried about wrapping up in blankets and extra coats. They're not working on the academics. And it really does take a toll on them.

SHAPIRO: All over the country, teachers have been calling attention to difficult working conditions, especially given the pressures of the pandemic - remote schooling, pressure on curriculum, teacher resignations. How does what you're experiencing in Columbus, Ohio, compare to what you're hearing from colleagues in other areas?

FUENTES: So what I think it speaks to is just the overall burnout. You know, teachers - I think we just, for forever, kind of make the situation as best as we possibly can. And, you know, we're just kind of like, throw ourselves into it. And, you know, we just - we do it for the kids. But it comes a point where the - everything boils over, and you just can't take being nonappreciated (ph) anymore. And so if we are going to save public education, we have to start making an investment in retaining teachers and taking care of these old buildings. And this not just happening in Columbus, Ohio. This is happening all over the nation.

SHAPIRO: It's also been a difficult time for parents and students. Do you fear that your decision to strike could add to the stresses on them?

FUENTES: Well, look; you know, I understand that this is a difficult situation, and we take that into consideration. But I hope that we're showing with this sacrifice - you know, of losing our pay, losing our health insurance while we're on this strike - I hope that we are demonstrating to them just how passionate we are about getting these schools fixed and, you know, getting this change. And I also hope that, you know, the parents see that we're trying to set a pathway for the future, that, you know, we're not just going to take the status quo and accept that they might get to these things. We want them to be held accountable. They hold teachers accountable. They hold students accountable. It's time for the elected officials to be held accountable to do what the public wants.

SHAPIRO: You are talking about a national problem of deprioritizing public schools and teachers. Is this something that any one labor agreement can fix?

FUENTES: You know, it could be the start. You know, I don't see us being the one thing that changes the whole nation. But you know what? If I help my kids have better situations and better working - or learning conditions, then, you know, it was all worth it. It was all worth it.

SHAPIRO: So what kind of conversations have you been having with students and parents as you walk the picket line?

FUENTES: Oh, our parents and our students, they're proud of us, you know, because we - one of the reasons why we're even, you know, pushing for this is because we watch them. We're on the front lines every day watching our students suffer in these conditions. We hear their complaints. We hear their cries. We make the - you know, we fill out the work orders to try and get things fixed and see things that never get fixed. And so, you know, we've had enough. So we never wanted to reach the point where we were striking, but striking seems to be the only thing that is getting their attention and letting them know we're serious.

SHAPIRO: People may remember back in 2018, there was a wave of teacher strikes across the country. Right now, this seems limited. Do you expect it might catch on more broadly?

FUENTES: Yes, I do. Because, you know, workers across the nation want some respect, and this economy is not getting easier to live in, you know? And we deserve that respect.

SHAPIRO: That's Regina Fuentes, a Columbus City schools teacher and spokesperson for the teachers' union. Thank you very much.

FUENTES: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: And NPR reached out to the Columbus Board of Education, but did not hear back from them before airtime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Kathryn Fox
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