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East Chicago school staffers rally in support of laid-off colleagues
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East Chicago school staffers rally in support of laid-off colleagues

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EAST CHICAGO — They worked to prepare schools and classrooms for COVID-19. Then they learned they lost their jobs.

About two dozen members of Service Employees International Union Local 73 rallied Thursday outside the School City of East Chicago Administration Building to get their jobs back.

“They don’t treat us right. They’re always unfair,” said Juanita Espinosa Guillen, chief steward for SEIU Local 73 and a laid-off paraprofessional, or para, at McKinley Elementary. “We want to stand up for our people. They’re doing things that are just not right.”

The School Board voted Aug. 21 to temporarily lay off 90 school support staff, including paraprofessionals, janitorial, and transportation staff. Those layoffs included 34 paraprofessionals and 23 janitorial personnel.

Superintendent Dee-Etta Wright said at that time that the layoffs were intended to be temporary while the school district engages in e-learning, or virtual classrooms, for the first nine weeks of the 2020-21 school year.

Local officials were also waiting on word about possible funding reductions due to e-learning from the State Board of Education. Earlier this week, the state board approved a resolution cleaning up some e-learning wording and clarifying funding.

The SBOE voted Sept. 2 that every student attending classes in person during the previous school year will still generate 100% of state tuition support this year, regardless of how that instruction is being delivered, on ADM (average daily membership) day. This year ADM day will remain Sept. 18.

That current form of instruction, the SBOE voted, includes virtual learning, which the state defines as “instruction provided in an interactive environment, in which the student is separated from a teacher by time or space.”

Marie Baker, president of Local 73, said the union wants full-time status for its members. “Since we’re part-time, they can do what they want with us,” said Baker, 91, a paraprofessional for 33 years, currently at Lincoln Elementary.

Baker considers herself and other paraprofessionals as teachers in their own right.

Guillen added, “All the layoffs affect everyone — clerks, custodians, secretaries, paraprofessionals. It’s all of us.”

Guillen held a sign with this message: “Schools need paras. Teachers need paras. Students need paras.”

Some at the rally also addressed the need for higher wages.

“It’s a shame that, as a school system, we employ people who cannot make a living wage,” said Christina Garcia, a laid-off English language learner paraprofessional at Block Middle School.

Keith Cleveland, a laid-off custodian after 20 years at multiple buildings and a union steward, noted, “I don’t think they did (the layoffs) properly. They laid off too many people. They’ve got people working overtime, going from building to building.”

Veronica Valdivia, a custodian/acting supervisor with 10 years experience, was among the layoffs. “It’s really sad,” she said. “Everyone pulled their weight and did their jobs. We worked until the end and did not have any idea about the layoffs.”

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