Hundreds of teachers took leave Wednesday in solidarity with a women’s protest day, forcing the cancellation of classes in Prince George’s County, Alexandria and at least nine charter schools in the District.
As parents scrambled to find child care and some debated the teachers’ actions, Prince George’s, with 132,000 students, appeared to be the largest district in the country to shutter schools because so many employees took off to be part of “A Day Without a Woman.”
The national demonstration, which encouraged female workers to show the importance of women in the workforce by staying home, was planned in conjunction with International Women’s Day. Federal data shows that most public school teachers are female. Many female teachers also participated in the women’s marches held the day after President Trump took office.
At least one other school district elsewhere, Chapel Hill-Carrboro in North Carolina, also canceled classes Wednesday when too many staff members requested the day off.
In the Maryland suburb of Prince George’s, school officials said Tuesday evening that about 1,700 teachers and 30 percent of the transportation staff had asked for the day off.
“We cannot transport students and provide safe, productive learning environments without adequate staff,” Prince George’s schools chief Kevin Maxwell said in a statement. Maxwell apologized for the inconvenience to families. Maxwell and other school officials said closure decisions were not influenced by politics.
But Maxwell came under fire for the late hour of his announcement. Prince George’s Board of Education member Edward Burroughs III said officials should have paid closer attention to staffing levels earlier on.
“I think it was pretty clear we were going to have a problem,” Burroughs said.
Prince George’s school officials said Wednesday that the process for requesting leave is automated and that there is not a cap on the number of employees who can take off a particular day.
The extent of the absences became clear following calls to each of the district’s more than 200 schools late Tuesday afternoon, officials said. More than 20 schools would have had teacher absentee rates of more than 50 percent if classes were held; another 20 schools would have had rates of 25 to 50 percent.
“We didn’t have those numbers earlier in the day,” schools spokeswoman Raven Hill said.
The action in Prince George’s came a day after Alexandria Superintendent Alvin Crawley decided to cancel classes in the Northern Virginia school system. More than 300 staff members — the majority of them teachers — asked for the day off. The district of about 15,000 students has about 1,400 teachers.
Some parents were frustrated by the last-minute rush to find child care or having to miss work. They criticized the school system for allowing so many teachers to take personal leave.
Alexandria schools spokeswoman Helen Lloyd said the school system typically does not deny those requests. Lloyd said some teachers also indicated that they planned to wait until Wednesday to request leave, which would have left the district casting around for substitutes to cover their classrooms.
At least nine charter schools in the District also canceled class, the D.C. Public Charter School Board said: six Center City Public Charter Schools campuses, as well as the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School and Lee Montessori Public Charter School.
In Prince George’s, Khadija Bowen, a mother of four from Upper Marlboro, described the teachers’ action as “selfish and irresponsible.” She said her third-grade son told her that classes could not possibly be canceled because he had important math testing scheduled for Wednesday.
“The kids suffer,” she said. “You don’t put the kids in the middle to prove a point. What if physicians decided not to come to work? What happens when Mom and Dad split up or fight? The kids lose. There are right ways and wrong ways to get a point across.”
Bowen pointed out that many working parents can’t locate child care on such short notice and that a majority of students rely on free and reduced-price meals at school. “Nobody thought this through and thought about the people they were affecting,” she said.
Prince George’s school officials said seven schools across the county were open to serve lunches to students.
Others were not dismayed at the teachers.
“I appreciate the fact that the teachers are doing it — I support it — but I just wish we had a tiny bit more notice,” said Chelai Johnson, a mother of two who lives in southern Prince George’s and ended up taking her children with her to work.
Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, which has about 10,000 members, said the union had no role in organizing the county’s teachers to take leave and did not know in advance that so many would be out.
“I had no idea,” Dudley said. “We’re sensitive to the concerns of parents, and the safety of children is paramount.” But she noted that many of the union’s members participated in the women’s march in January. “The spirit of the Women’s March is with us,” she said.
Arelis Hernández, Perry Stein and Alejandra Matos contributed to this report.