On Friday morning, nearly 100 Chesterfield students used their outside voices to protest comments made by the county administrator about teacher pay.
The idea to stand at the county administration building’s entrance developed the day before, when students received an email saying Chesterfield County Public Schools would close to students Friday in preparation for the coronavirus — news that foiled teachers’ original plan to protest by calling out sick Thursday afternoon and force schools to close once CCPS couldn’t satisfy all the substitute requests.
Instead, teachers were required to clean classrooms and develop instructional plans for the prospect of long-term cancellations.
CCPS announced Friday morning that it would be closed until at least March 23, and on Friday afternoon, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all schools in the state closed until at least March 27.
Teachers’ “sickout” was planned in response to statements by County Administrator Joe Casey suggesting teachers could earn more by tutoring or fundraising.
The comments further angered teachers, who were already disappointed by the proposed 2% salary bump included in county budget plans for the upcoming fiscal year, a decrease from the 3% to 13% request Superintendent Merv Daugherty initially proposed in January. The county’s budget proposal also calls for a pay study that could lead to midyear raises for teachers above the initial 2%.
Deja Williams, a Thomas Dale High School senior and one of the student organizers, remembered getting a text at 10:40 a.m. Thursday from Emerson Pessarra, a fellow Thomas Dale senior. They had to protest in honor of the teachers, it read.
“We thought it was really important that our teachers shouldn’t be silenced,” said Williams, adding that she thought the county’s early decision to close on Friday, ahead of other neighboring school districts, was too coincidental.
They, along with senior Tayler Butters and other students, made signs at Pessarra’s house Thursday night directed at Casey that included, “Don’t tell teachers to get a second job when you can’t do your own” and “I shouldn’t have to marry rich to be a teacher.” Some baked cookies at 2 a.m. in reference to Casey’s suggestion of fundraising to supplement teachers’ paychecks or help reduce the amount they spend on classroom supplies.
Students joked that one cookie would cost $100.
Casey, in a statement sent through a county spokeswoman Friday afternoon, didn’t acknowledge the student protest but said the county is committed to improving teacher salaries. In regards to the teachers’ plans, he said Wednesday that he respects people’s freedom of speech.
“We all want to remove compression and pivot to higher amounts. This is an important topic for our community, and we will continue to work with schools to address it in the coming months,” Casey said Friday. “But today, our county is facing a very real public health issue.”
People in the crowd, a combination of students from Thomas Dale, Midlothian, Matoaca and Cosby high schools, spoke about the effect teachers have had on their lives and how frequently they have seen them stay past school hours. They do not have time during the school year for a second job, one speaker said.
VCU freshman Draciela España is an early education major who said CCPS teachers are what made her choose her career path.
Others mentioned their parents being CCPS teachers and seeing firsthand the difficulties that come with it. Williams’ mom is one of them.
“She’s been teaching for almost 20 years. She has a master’s degree. ... I’m going off to college next year and that’s expensive,” Williams said. “She’s still paying off her student loans.”
Alyssa, a Chesterfield teacher who disclosed only her first name because she was supposed to be at school, showed up to the protest to thank students. Her voice broke as she said they’re why she continues teaching. She said her salary has increased about $2,000 since she started five years ago.
Williams and Pessarra said this is only the beginning. They plan to show up at the Board of Supervisors meeting next week and are aiming to schedule a walkout once school is back in session.
Williams looked up at the administration building, in the direction of Casey’s office, before addressing the crowd.
“Get used to seeing us here.”