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Strike effects go beyond picket line

Published January 11. 2017 02:46PM

From what to do with cafeteria food to how missed school days impact students taking the Keystone Exams, the trickle-down effect of a Palmerton Area School District teachers' strike is wide-ranging.

Teachers picketed outside the district administration for the second consecutive day Tuesday after nearly a year of negotiations ended without a new contract in place.

Who works, who doesn't?

While teachers in the Palmerton Area Education Association are on strike and classes are canceled, the day-to-day schedule for the rest of the district's staff is largely dependent on their role.

School year specific positions such as cafeteria workers are not reporting during the strike as there are no meals to be served without students in the building.

"Much like the students and teachers, that staff will get its full allotment of days in after the strike, so they get the same payment they normally would at the end of the day," Palmerton Superintendent Scot Engler said.

For the rest of the staff such as custodians and building secretaries, who are considered year-round employees, nothing changes and they report to work as usual.

Extracurricular activities are still being held during the strike, and all building use requests by outside organizations are honored.

The staff for athletic contests is a much more complicated scenario.

"Coaches or employees who are in the union and choose to coach or work during athletic events will be paid their stipend as they normally would," Engler said. "Those who choose not to will receive a prorated stipend and not receive money for the days missed."

In the days leading up to the start of the strike, who would cross the picket line remained a mystery to Engler.

"We asked to be notified in advance but didn't receive responses in some situations," he said. "It's really unheard of for teachers to try and group sports into a strike, but that's basically what happened here."

Shortly before the strike, Palmerton's school board revised the student handbook to allow sports to go on during the strike.

While most sports have nonunion assistant coaches able to take the reins, Engler himself will be joining Palmerton Junior High School Principal Rich DeSocio in coaching the middle school girls' basketball team during the strike.

"We had practice on Monday and the kids have really been great about all of this, but it shouldn't have come to that," Engler said.

Cafeteria happenings

The district orders food a week ahead of time and, because of guidelines on how long it can be kept, will be donating it.

"Our cafeteria manager is making arrangements, but the plan is to give it to a food bank or a place like that which could really use it," Engler said.

Because any state subsidy generally kicks in when the district is feeding students, Palmerton will take some financial hit on the unused food, though Engler couldn't put an exact dollar figure on it Tuesday.

Palmerton's cafeteria also provides meals for Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit 21 programs held in the borough.

Lehighton Area School District's board of directors gave approval Monday night to provide the CLIU meals for the duration of the strike.

Quick turnaround before Keystone Exams

Many high school students across the state began taking the most recent wave of Keystone Exams this week.

The Keystone Exams, end of course assessments in certain subjects such as biology and literature, are one component of Pennsylvania's new system of high school graduation requirements.

In anticipation of the strike, Palmerton contacted the state Department of Education and received approval to move the testing window back with a start date of Jan. 23.

While a return date for the teachers remains up in the air, Engler said there is cause for concern over the quick turnaround for students before taking the tests.

"We will likely be compelled to administer high-stakes tests to high school students who have had, at a minimum, four days of instructional time since Dec. 22," Engler said.

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