Students defend Pilgrim High School teachers who participated in ‘sick out’

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – There was no school for students at Pilgrim High School on Friday.

Warwick School District superintendent Philip Thornton confirmed Friday morning that classes were canceled due to a “sick out,” where dozens of teachers called out sick over ongoing contract negotiations.

A total of 91 teachers and staff called out Friday, 84 of 145 teachers and seven staff members, causing the superintendent to cancel school over insufficient staffing. The closure is only for Pilgrim High School; all other Warwick schools have class Friday.

Some students showed their support for their teachers by organizing a protest outside the school.

“Just because I’m here for my classmates. I’m here for the teachers. I stand with my teachers,” student Zachary Lafontaine said.

Class size is one of the many grievances some day led to the “sick out.”

Parent and Pilgrim High teacher Jason Huddon says large class size has contributed to a reduction in graduation rates, 2 percent for the general student body and 5 percent for special education students.

“The school committee and Dr. Thornton and staff of his administration is dropping the ball on our students. And it’s seen in the numbers. This isn’t a feeling,” Huddon said.

Pilgrim High School Principal Gerry Habershaw said the teachers have every right to protest, but that is not what upsets him about the “sick out.”

“My saying is do not out the students in the middle of your fight. And so they’ve done that today and it’s upsetting,” Habershaw said.

Thornton and the President of the Warwick Teachers’ Union Darlene Netcoh don’t agree on how to describe what happened Friday at Pilgrim High School.

“I’m not calling it anything other than teachers are sick and called it sick today,” Netcoh said.

In an email sent to parents Thursday afternoon, Superintendent Philip Thornton said in part: “We continue to work towards resolution of this ongoing dispute.  Activity such as this, however, does nothing to bring the parties closer together to resolve the contract.”

Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian released a statement saying Friday’s sick out was “extremely disappointing and disheartening.”

“This morning, I spoke with School Committee Chairwoman Beth Furtado, who said the Committee would be willing to go back to mediation in the hopes of resolving the contract dispute,” Avedisian said. “I expect that the Teachers’ Union will also return to the table in a good faith effort to reach an agreement.”

Avedisian said he hopes a resolution will be reached within the month.

This is not the first time a sick out related incident has occurred in Warwick. In late October 2016, 82 teachers across the Warwick school district called out sick on one day. That came one day after the school committee voted to consolidate two elementary schools.

In the above video, Eric Halperin discusses the previous sick outs that occurred in Warwick.

Union President Darlene Netcoh also said that was not a school sanctioned event. Back about a year ago Mayor Scott Avedisian also responded to that occurrence. “We have very dedicated teachers. And I don’t think that they would want to be involved in that kind of action, because I think it would reflect poorly on the whole system,” he said.

However his response to the reported sickout at Pilgrim High School is different. “In the meantime, the reported sickout at Pilgrim High School which forced the cancellation of classes there today is extremely disappointing and disheartening,” Mayor Avedisian said in a release.

Teachers in Warwick have been working without a contract since the last one expired a little more than two years ago.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of when teachers went on strike in Warwick in 1992. It’s now illegal for teachers in Rhode Island to strike.

Class is set to resume on Tuesday morning, following the Columbus Day holiday weekend.