D.C. Public Schools sent an email to staff on Tuesday providing some details about reopening, saying that the school system plans to offer a mix of in-person and virtual learning in the fall. The email also included a “return to in person work intent form,” which employees are instructed to return by July 10.
Staff members were provided two options. The first option says that “I plan to return to in-person work.” The second option is where the controversy lies. It reads:
“I believe I have a qualifying medical condition pursuant to FMLA and/or ADA and I plan to apply for leave or I do not have a qualifying medical condition, but I believe I am at higher risk (Higher Risk Guidance) for severe illness due to COVID-19 pursuant to the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA) and do not plan to return in person for safety and/or health reasons for myself or someone in my household.”
Among other confusion, many teachers interpreted it to mean that they would need to take a leave of absence if they do not opt to return to school buildings. School leaders said that is inaccurate. But Washington Teachers’ Union President Elizabeth Davis instructed all teachers Tuesday not to sign the letter until they can determine what it exactly means.
The Council of School Officers — the union that represents principals and other school administrators — said it also advised its members not to complete the form until they learn more information.
“It is important for teachers to have clarity on what this document means, and they don’t have it and neither do I,” Davis said in an interview. “The chancellor said that DCPS was going to exercise flexibility. This document does not show that.”
School officials said the document is intended for preliminary planning purposes so the school system can get a sense of how many teachers would opt to stay home once school buildings reopen. They said they would ideally hope to pair teachers who do not return to in-person learning with students opting for full-time virtual learning. But if those numbers don’t match up, it is possible that some teachers would need to take a leave of absence, officials said.
They said teachers would not be bound to their response on the form. But the form asks for a signature.
“We don’t want to be in a situation where we are thinking through staffing in late July and August. It was well intended,” D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said at a State Board of Education meeting Wednesday. “This was an intent for us to gather that information so we can plan accordingly.”
Teachers and school systems have been in standoffs across the country as districts begin to announce reopening plans and teachers fear those plans fail to adequately keep them safe. In Fairfax County, teachers groups told members to tell the school system they would participate only in virtual learning until leaders could provide them with more safety assurances.
“The way I see it, they are asking me to lay all my cards on the table, and I don’t see what they are holding,” said Signe Nelson, an elementary school teacher who works with English language learners and is older than 65. “Bottom line is I don’t trust DCPS to meet these health guidelines.”
Tiffany Brown, a special-education elementary teacher, said she does not plan to fill out the form either. She has asthma and her husband is older than 60. Her middle school-age children have genetic blood conditions and she is unsure whether those could create coronavirus complications. They attend a D.C. school and she plans to keep them home in the fall.
She said she was surprised at the wording of the letter and was unsure what opting out of in-person learning would mean for her.
“I kept on reading this over and over again, and was thinking this does not help me; it says go back to work or else,” Brown said. “I think they are trying to intimidate teachers.”