Class Notes: An Interview with LEA President John Havlicek

By Peter Gorski

John Havlicek is the President of the La Crosse teachers union, The La Crosse Education Association, and a teacher at Central High. With budget crises hitting cities across the country and a pandemic still ravaging the United States, I caught up with John to talk about how teachers and schools are handling this unprecedented situation.

How are teachers faring during the pandemic? With the changing working conditions, has it been more difficult to complete duties?

As the school year winds down union activity ramps up. Support during the pandemic has been decent, but I suspect it will be all over the map, school by school and classroom by classroom. Schools are reporting that this has been smooth, but so far I haven’t seen a lot of evidence to back that up. It was an abrupt transition, and has reflected society as a whole, exacerbating inequities we already had.

In Stevens Point, Sentry Insurance funded and provided around 1,200 mobile hotspots to send home to kids, while In La Crosse we had about a dozen. It’s great that Sentry did that, but if we could get tax dollars from these companies we could get these provided across the board. 

How much work do you send home with kids, and what do you expect from them? Do they have internet access? Do they have to care for younger siblings? Those are the biggest drivers of how well kids are performing.

The distance learning process is clunky, and reporting back has been inconsistent from kids. Some kids are slipping through the cracks. Teachers are all doing things differently, and how much work should be sent and expected is really up in the air. Long term, the success of online schooling only works for 15-20% at best. A huge chunk of kids can get by, and a good portion are getting left behind.

Do you see budget cuts to education coming in light of the recession the country is now facing?

Next year is still up in the air. The state government is going to need billions from the federal government to sustain services, and it doesn’t look like Republicans in the Senate will be willing to provide that.

In my lifetime, I don’t know that we have had a politician say “we have to raise taxes during these unprecedented times”. When the government can give a $5 trillion handout to corporations, it is clear that it doesn’t have a problem finding money when it wants to. This is not the time to cut education funding. We saw this in 2010 in Europe, and it has not solved any problems.

Education is a jobs program, and we will need more tech staff. La Crosse already operates with a tech staff shortage, and need for support will only go up. We need more custodial staff as well, to keep the schools sanitized and as safe as possible. Teachers can clean off desks and surfaces, but floors and lockers go beyond the time they have. Checking in with students and continuing communications will be key.

Even if schools reopen in person, some parents will elect to keep their kids home, and we will have to work through that as well. Doing more with less needs to be consigned to the ash heap of history. When you put a system under stress, you see the cracks. And the cracks aren’t wide, they are chasms.

How has union engagement and activity been affected by the pandemic?

Wisconsin was a strong union state before Act 10. The unions that have been active since before COVID are still active. We have a monthly building rep meeting, and we had a regular meeting three days before everything shut down.

We saw this coming and set up a weekly newsletter with tech tips, how to be engaging, and how to gauge workload for kids. We recruited  ‘tech experts’ from our membership to help other teachers that need support. We have been doing membership drives, telling prospective members that big problems need big organizations to solve them. La Crosse has increased union membership in the last few months, and teachers are coming together to tackle the new problems facing educators.

With large portions of our society opened back up and a government that seems dead set on willfully ignoring the fact that the pandemic is still very much ongoing, how do you see the education system going forward into the next school year?

We haven’t had formal discussions that we have been a part of. Districts are focused on finishing up the school year. We have a new superintendent coming in, Dr. Aaron Engel, and he sounds like a good guy but that means things are on hold right now. We want him to be involved, and he is finishing up his tenure as district administrator in Gale-Ettrick-Trempeleau.

If I had to guess right now, I would say in high schools we will have some kind of blended home/in-person model with smaller class sizes and heightened safety procedures. The prep work is going to be a lot, and we will need to schedule time to clean and sanitize, handle office hours, and do distance work on top of classroom hours.

For elementary schools, if we need to winnow down classroom sizes, we may need to move kids around locations. I don’t know how workable that is, and I personally am not sure how that would look. Maybe the district will have to lease new sites to create more classrooms, but it all comes back to funding and if we will have the support to do that. Middle school is somewhere in between, and I really hope that every district across the state can form a committee with representation from schools to craft a plan based on information from the CDC and education experts.

I hope legislative decision makers can sit down and hash out implementation as well. Temperature checks have been recommended by the CDC, but we don’t know if that is workable, and there are still sick people that could slip through. Even at half capacity with over 500 kids a day at Central High, how can you check all those temperatures as people come in expeditiously?

Schools have a lot of employees beyond teachers, like kitchen staff, custodians, and office administrators. Schools serve as more than just classrooms, and the logistics for food distribution and other wrap around services will require an immense amount of planning. We are going to need input from that staff to properly plan safety procedures for all of this infrastructure. What happens if we see a huge spike in August? The country is opening back up, and we haven’t seen the results of that decision yet. Everything could change if another surge comes through.

Is there anything else you want to add, or anything you want the public to know about teachers and schools?

Hopefully we can make lemonade out of lemons and fix problems we were already fixing. There are huge equity issues, and the NEA (National Education Association) takes three things to heart: bargaining, professional development, and breaking down barriers of systemic racism and social and economic barriers of injustice. If we are going to rebuild this, maybe this is an opportunity to fix these intractable problems.

Wisconsin has been named the worst state for African Americans. We know that white teachers tend to over-discipline African-American children. We also know that students of color are underrepresented in the accelerated track. What we end up with are a bunch of students of color who are passed over for higher level classes because of teacher implicit bias from their younger years, and not based on their academic skills and potential. Maybe now is the time that we can fix some of this.

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