Employees of a special education center in Henrico County held a car rally Thursday to protest its reopening plans for next week.
With the Faison Center set to open its doors again Monday, a collective of employees is alleging that the management is dismissing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, putting employees, students and their families at risk by reopening now.
In a news release earlier this month, a group called Second Staff — a reference to an internal Faison code for assistance from available teachers or aides — said management has not been forthcoming about the potential spread of the disease on campus, and that concerned employees are afraid to speak out publicly against the reopening plans.
“Second Staff condemns Faison’s actions thus far and encourages the company to consider virtual instruction,” the group said. “We ask this not to get a vacation or a break from work, but out of the safety of our students and clients, all of whom are some of the best human beings we’ve met.”
In a statement before the protest, the Faison Center said its plans for a staggered reopening next week will help families with special needs students who have not been able to send their children there since schools around the state closed in March under the order of Gov. Ralph Northam.
The Faison Center is a private nonprofit that specializes in education and treatment services for people with autism. It also operates an early education center and a residence hall for adults that has remained open since the onset of the pandemic this spring.
The protest at Faison’s campus was similar to others that teachers and parents have held in the Richmond area over the past month regarding school reopening plans in the city and neighboring counties.
School districts for Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield and Henrico elected this month to start the school year online as the cases of COVID-19 in Virginia were rising again. Hanover County and Colonial Heights will let families choose whether to send their children back to a normal five-day school week or continue working online.
Faison said it is reopening the rest of its school in a staggered fashion on Monday, with different groups of students coming back in a weekly rotation for now. Faison’s news release notes that similar special education centers in the Richmond area have also reopened.
The release did not directly address the protest, but mentioned Faison’s health and safety plans were developed by medical professionals, autism experts, Faison staff and parents, and the Virginia Department of Health.
“We believe that it is important to provide safe educational options during this crisis to the most vulnerable children in our Commonwealth,” the news release says. “We are grateful to our remarkable staff who are the reason why our students are able to return.”
But Second Staff has alleged that Faison failed to notify employees and families that the parent of a student had tested positive while the Early Education Center was still open. The group also said it is worried some employees who have recently traveled for vacation may have been exposed to COVID-19.
Faison said there have been no cases among its staff or clients while the Early Education Center and Residences have remained open.
Organizers with Second Staff and their supporters say reopening the school still puts students, families and staff at risk.
About a dozen vehicles were involved in the rally. In addition to signs calling for online instruction and delaying the opening of the school until new cases of COVID-19 begin to decline, some of the protesters put references to other social and racial justice movements on their vehicles.
“Demanding the safety for the students of Faison and former co-educators means both inside and outside the school,” said Chris, a former Faison employee who asked that his last name not be used. “I hope simultaneously advocating for both movements can help achieve safety and equity for the Black students I taught and the Black co-workers I worked beside.”
A Second Staff organizer interviewed earlier this month said the group’s members wish to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation by management.
In its news release earlier this month, the group said Faison CEO Brian McCann, a lawyer by trade, implied in a recent staff meeting that employees who speak to the press could be sued for defamation and have their wages “garnished for life.”
McCann did not respond to questions about his remarks at the staff meeting.