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Teachers strike in Ohio’s largest district 2 days before school begins

COLUMBUS, OH- AUGUST, 22: Columbus City School teachers strike outside of Livingston Elementary School in Columbus, OH on August 22, 2022. (Maddie McGarvey/For The Washington Post)

Teachers in Columbus, Ohio, are striking for the first time in 47 years after their contract expired early Monday following months of negotiation without an agreement over working conditions in the district’s more than 100 schools.

Unionized teachers with the Columbus Education Association (CEA) hit the picket lines Monday morning after a late Sunday vote in which 94 percent of the members rejected the “last, best offer” from Columbus City Schools’ Board of Education and authorized a strike.

The strike is the first of the new school year in a major district — Columbus enrolls more than 46,000 students — and comes as strike threats bubble up in other districts around the country. A county commissioner in North Carolina urged teachers to strike over low pay, citing a state budget surplus but massive teacher shortfall; over the weekend, 2,000 teachers in Philadelphia voted to strike a week before school begins.

Two-and-a-half years of pandemic-throttled schooling and a recent escalation of culture wars around what teachers can say on topics such as U.S. history, racism and LGBTQ rights have left districts across the country grappling with burned-out educators and catastrophic teacher shortages.

Columbus teachers were scheduled to return to classrooms Monday for preparation ahead of the first day of school Wednesday.

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The CEA strike is the union’s first since 1975 and comes as members push for changes to their recently expired contract, which was written before the coronavirus pandemic and expired at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

“On July 28, the school board walked away from the bargaining table and since that time has refused to agree to contract language that will guarantee Columbus students basics like air conditioning, appropriate class sizes, and full-time art, music, and P.E. teachers in elementary schools,” the CEA said in a statement.

Jennifer Adair, president of the district’s Board of Education, called the CEA’s vote to reject the contract offer and strike “incredibly disappointing.”

“We are saddened by the unfortunate situation our families, our community and, most importantly, our children now face,” Adair said in a statement. Adair said the board’s offer prioritized students but also addressed teachers’ concerns and provided “generous” compensation.

The first day for students will now be online, the district said. It was not immediately clear who would be running lessons with the teachers on strike; the CEA has asked its supporters in the district to honor the physical or virtual picket line, which includes not using the online alternatives. The union said the strike will not interfere with families accessing the district’s buildings for meal pickup and medical services.