Teachers’ union president insisted on safety first

Tampa Bay Newspapers | by Jerry Stockfisch | May 27, 2021

LARGO — After finishing the 2019-2020 school year with kids at home staring at monitors and teachers speaking into microphones and cameras, officials from the state Capitol to local boardrooms were eager to reopen schools in the fall of 2020.

Nancy Velardi was among those holding up stop signs.

With then-President Donald Trump, Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran all leaning on districts to open their doors, the president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association pushed back.

She wouldn’t get her way on several strategies she suggested to keep teachers and students safe — first, demanding a continuation of exclusively virtual teaching, then proposing that half-classes be taught in person on alternating days. Ultimately, the state union would sue DeSantis and Corcoran over the rush to reopen.

When “the handwriting was on the wall” and districts faced funding cuts for empty desks, Velardi still held her ground.

She negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the Pinellas district that included specific demands for personal protective equipment such as masks and face shields, mandated social distancing, and created protected areas for teachers.

“I don’t think the district realized that while they put out their plan, which was seemingly very complete and very full of safety protocols, very few of those protocols were actually taking place — until we put them in a contract,” Velardi said. A subsequent memorandum of understanding went further, cementing rules such as immediately removing students who refused to wear masks from class, quicker reporting of COVID-19 cases, and additional protections for at-risk teachers.

“If you’re bringing these vulnerable people back to the school, you need to make it safer,” she said. “We were relentless.”

Nothing else would be expected of the 64-year-old teachers’ union president, a Brooklyn native who left the corporate world 20 years ago because “it didn’t feel like I mattered.” After relocating to Florida, she became an English teacher at Pinellas Park High, served as the union representative there, and joined the union’s collective bargaining team.

When she decided to run for the union presidency, the coronavirus wasn’t even an issue. Her platform: Autonomy for teachers in the classroom, and providing a strong defense against the war on public education.

“It just bothered me so much the last few years what I was seeing happening in classrooms — teachers getting called on the carpet because they were not following the pacing guide, or not doing exactly what is written on the page,” Velardi said. “That’s not teaching. It infuriated me. I said, ‘Stop.’

“If anything’s going to kill public education, it’s this. … It just started getting worse and worse the last few years, and that is when I thought maybe I should take a run at a leadership position and see if I can make some changes, even if they’re just local changes, and see if I can make this a little bit of a better profession for those who come behind me.”

She was elected on March 11, 2020. That very day, Pinellas County reported its first two cases of COVID-19. Her priorities, of course, had to shift.

She recalls having it out with a district negotiator over safety issues. “I was told, ‘You do not negotiate for students.’ So they have nobody to protect them? I said, ‘Yes, I negotiate for the teachers, who, in turn, care about what happens to their students, and I am going to continue to keep bringing up what’s best for students, since that’s supposed to be our goal.’”

As far as what will happen this fall, again, the handwriting appears to be on the wall. State officials have hinted that distance-learning programs launched in response to the coronavirus such as MyPCS Online in Pinellas will not be funded. The vaccination campaign has been a success. Mask mandates have worked. Despite a spring-break spike, the numbers are getting better.

Perhaps Velardi will have the opportunity to refocus on what brought her into union leadership in the first place. She originally intended to be a one-term president, with her tenure expiring in 2023. But in an interview with Tampa Bay Newspapers, she hedged.

“I’m torn,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been denied what I wanted to accomplish and I kind of lost a year. … I really am undecided.”

She relishes fighting for teachers and protecting public education, whether it be in the negotiating room or in the court of public opinion, where teachers’ unions are routinely denounced by conservative politicians.

“I laugh at that,” she said, insisting that her membership is evenly divided between political parties. “The bile against unions is bile against teachers, because the unions are simply a group of teachers. That’s all it is.”

Image: Nancy Velardi was elected president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association on March 11, 2020. That very day, Pinellas County reported its first two cases of COVID-19.Photo by JERRY STOCKFISCH

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