Plans to reopen schools have created tension between Evergreen Public Schools and its teachers union, adding labor strife to the challenges of returning students to the classroom.
Evergreen Public Schools on Tuesday informed its staff that teachers will be expected to report back to buildings by Sept. 21 to meet with small groups of high-needs students while continuing to teach most students online due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The problem, according to the Evergreen Education Association, is that its executive board never agreed to those terms. The two sides are negotiating a memorandum of understanding that would outline the expectations for remote learning, but they haven’t reached agreement.
“The District unilaterally demanding all members to be in the building while teaching online unnecessarily increases the number of people in the building during a full day and will increase the risk to all in a pandemic that is known to spread through aerosols where people are gathered,” union leadership wrote in a newsletter.
Vancouver Public Schools, meanwhile, has already reached an agreement with its teachers union, allowing teachers to work remotely so long as the district is offering distance education. While the 14-page memorandum of understanding encourages teachers to return to the classroom, it offers flexibility for teachers to remain at home if they’re worried about entering the building.
Union president Bill Beville said union leadership and teachers want to decide for themselves if working conditions are safe and not be forced to return while most district students are still in remote coursework.
“If a teacher can do their job at home, why should they take any risk in coming in?” Beville said. “There’s not a zero possibility you’re going to catch it.”
Evergreen Superintendent Mike Merlino, meanwhile, said his top priority is in helping students return to the classroom. The district plans to bring groups of five or fewer students back to buildings in late September with social distancing protocols and personal protective equipment in place. The goal is to ramp up re-entry if and when the coronavirus transmission rates begin to decline, so that when schools do reopen for all students, staff are prepared, he said.
“In Evergreen, we want our students in school with their teacher,” Merlino said. “We want special needs kids … to be served in schools. It’s hard to make sure our kids can come back if there’s an option of whether staff is there to serve them.”
Merlino also said returning students to the classroom is an educational equity and justice issue. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has directed schools to focus on supporting students who are historically underserved by the education system, including low-income students, students with disabilities and students of color.
“If my kid has that teacher who chooses not to be there, and my kid can’t be there, how is that equitable and fair?” he asked.
Teachers with underlying conditions may be eligible to take leave under the Americans with Disabilities Act, or extended child care leave under the Family First Cares Act.
Beville, however, said the district’s compliance with federal law is “not a gift.” Teachers want to teach, he said, but want to decide for themselves when it’s safe to return to the building while remote learning continues.
The district’s existing memorandum of understanding expires on Aug. 31. School is slated to begin on Sept. 1. The two sides are expected to meet for additional bargaining soon.