The Orleans Parish School Board passed a resolution Thursday urging schools to allow their employees to work from home, following reports that some charter operators are requiring teachers to work from their classrooms even while students are learning remotely.
“Requests for distance teaching opportunities and safety concerns raised by teachers, paraprofessionals, social workers, school nurses, and clerical staff deserve thoughtful consideration and response to ensure a safe learning environment for everyone,” the resolution proposed by board member Nolan Marshall, Jr. reads.
School buildings will be open, even though students are starting the school year virtually, Superintendent Dr. Henderson Lewis Jr. said at a press conference last week. During this time, schools are expected to provide “critical services,” such as meal distribution and teachers “may” come into the building to work.
Some charter operators have left the decision up to teachers, while others, including Crescent City Schools and InspireNOLA Charter Schools, are mandating that their teachers report to work in-person. Many teachers have already returned to their buildings to attend professional development.
“Having a daughter that is a third-generation teacher in one of our schools and I being of the age that is particularly at risk may have made me more sensitive to these issues,” Marshall said.
His daughter’s school will start the school year with teachers at home. Marshall said all schools should do the same.
“The proposed resolution will ask all school leaders to adopt similar plans. These actions will help make the risk of contracting or spreading the virus minimal,” Marshall said. “Our school employees are not easily replaced and are the heartbeat of an educated democracy. We should do everything possible to protect them. I ask all school leaders to understand the intent of this resolution and to comply.”
Marshall’s resolution also says “no teacher or staff member should face reprisals for raising safety concerns in a school or in any work environment.”
Heather Harris, a former employee of Crescent City Schools said she was fired for criticizing her school’s plan requiring teachers to work from the building at least several days a week. She spoke in support of the resolution at Thursday night’s virtual board meeting.
"The common rationale given for this requirement is that it will increase teacher accountability and make virtual school more effective,” Harris said. “Our students deserve an excellent education virtually or in person. But as education leaders, we can use other methods to ensure accountability."
Harris said that administrators can monitor teachers by observing their Zoom sessions, reviewing their lesson plans, and assessing real-time data.
“Forcing teachers to work in the building does not mean they’ll be more effective. In fact, it may have the opposite effect,” Harris said.
While the resolution was a last-minute addition to the meeting’s agenda, more than a dozen teachers and education advocates attended the virtual meeting to support the resolution and push for additional teacher and student protections.
Several people criticized the language of the resolution which “urges” but does not require schools to allow teachers to work from home.
“Saying ‘urge’ allows them not to participate,” said former public school employee Lona Edwards Hankins. “I strongly suggest you change that word to ‘you shall.’”
Hankins served as the director of capital improvements for the Recovery School District in the years following Hurricane Katrina.
Due to charter autonomy, it’s unclear whether the board can take a more aggressive stance.
But Whitney Henderson, a former KIPP New Orleans teacher and assistant principal, said the board could do more to protect teachers since the district owns most of the buildings that schools occupy.
"We need OPSB as owner and landlord of school buildings to regulate who goes in and out of school buildings and ensure that teachers, support staff and paraprofessionals are safely at home during virtual school," Henderson said.
Henderson currently works for EdNavigator, a nonprofit that helps families navigate the education system. She’s also the author of a petition calling for more protections for teachers as they return to school. It had more than 1,200 signatures as of Friday afternoon.
Hankins also brought up the district’s role as landlord and said they need to assess whether schools will be able to socially distance students when they return to the classroom.
“As the landlord of the building, you have the obligation to tell schools how many children can be in the building. You have the obligation to provide plans, sketches, that show how many children can fit in a classroom while safely social distancing,” Hankins said.
For teachers who are also parents, returning to school has been particularly difficult. Many are uncomfortable placing their children in childcare programs and would prefer to stay at home with their children until cases are under control and students resume in-person learning.
InspireNOLA will allow teachers to bring their children with them when they report to campus two days a week according to emails shared with New Orleans Public Radio.
“Children of staff between the ages of 4 years old [and] 14 years old will be allowed on campus with their staff member parent,” Chief Executive Officer Jamar McKneely wrote in an email to the InspireNOLA staff.
Children must remain only in the “classroom, office, or work area of their parent,” wear a face covering, and practice social distancing. All parents are required to sign a form accepting sole responsibility for any injury their children may sustain on campus.