Teacher strike forces students to start school year remotely in Ohio

A strike by teachers in Ohio’s largest school district entered its third day Wednesday — the first day of school for some 47,000 students, with some of those students and their parents rallying to their sides.

Parents, students, teachers and other employees gathered at schools across the Columbus School District with plans to picket for hours, advocating for safer buildings, better heating and air conditioning, smaller class sizes, and a more well-rounded curriculum that includes art, music and physical education. It’s the union’s first strike in the district since 1975.

Picketers blasted music on the sidewalks outside Whetstone High School in Columbus and waved to honking drivers. Some held up signs reading, "Columbus schools deserve working air," "a history lesson in progress" and "my feet hurt but I’ll walk as long as it takes."

RELATED: Student loan forgiveness: Biden unveils plan to cancel $10K in student debt

The school district and the union resumed bargaining Wednesday afternoon. The school board said its offer to the union put children first.

"We offered a generous compensation package for teachers and provisions that would have a positive impact on classrooms," the board said in a statement.

Eva Tweneboagh, a senior at Whetstone High School, picketed alongside her teachers, her friends and friends’ parents on the sunny Wednesday morning. She said it’s strange to start off with another disrupted school year, especially since she "hasn’t had a normal school year" through high school.

While she’s worried about the strike continuing and affecting things like college scholarships and her grades, she said, her teachers shouldn’t be backing down.

"What they’re asking is reasonable," Tweneboagh said. The school district and teachers "should be able to come together," she said.

The Ohio Education Association said more than 94% of the Columbus Education Association members voted to reject the school board’s final offer late Sunday. The union represents more than 4,000 teachers, librarians, nurses and other employees, though it isn’t clear how many of those 4,000 members were not on the job Wednesday.

RELATED: Parts of George Dawson's book deemed inappropriate for George Dawson Middle School students

The tens of thousands of students in the district are now starting the school year with remote education, made up of lesson plans and videos they can access through their schools without a teacher to guide them. It’s a start that has some parents concerned. Remote learning has contributed to students falling behind academically and to mental health and behavioral challenges.

Mayor Andrew J. Ginther announced in a news release that the city is partnering with recreation centers and area nonprofit organizations to open "support centers" with reliable internet service for students affected by the teacher strike.

The centers began operating Wednesday and are providing spaces for students to access online lessons, however, they are "not intended to serve as a substitute for in-person academic instruction."

Starting Thursday, some school locations, recreation centers and nonprofits will provide meals.

Whitney Price, mom to a first grader at Columbus Spanish Immersion School, said that while she supports teachers, she wished these negotiations between the teachers and the school district had gotten done earlier, when it wouldn’t have affected kids in school.

Price showed up at the Linden Community Center with her son, seeking internet and meals for his first day of school.

Price, a restaurant server, said the idea of continuing to be a mom and worker, as well as a teacher and counselor after effectively doing so during the pandemic, makes her anxious.

"But we just roll with the punches," said Price, giving her 6-year-old a squeeze in the recreation center lobby. "Whatever I have to be, I’ll do it."

Samantha Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.