Several Gwinnett County teachers are calling on the county’s school system to give them back a choice they previously had about how to return to work, starting this week.
Gwinnett County Public Schools planned a mid-week return to work for teachers and other district staff for training ahead of the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. Teachers, however, said they were originally given a choice about whether they began the school year working from home or working from their respective schools.
Now, they said the district has made changes to the start of the school year plans that omit the work-from-home option, and educators who called the district’s leave office were told there was no work from home option.
“I understand that there’s no fully right answer, but to me, knowing that (on Wednesday), we’re expected to report back to the buildings, but be in our classrooms with the doors shut and on our computer for all trainings — that, to me, felt like there could be some flexibility in doing the same thing in the safety of my home,” elementary school teacher Ashley Newman said.
More than a dozen teachers emailed the Daily Post on Sunday and Monday about their concerns about their ability to work from home disappearing. Newman, who has been organizing her fellow teachers to contact district officials about those concerns, said about 76 teachers have copied her on emails to district officials where the text of an online petition she started is included.
At the center of the debate is one line from the district’s July 20 announcement that the district would switch to 100% digital learning. That announcement also included details about the district’s plans for beginning the school year.
The original version sent out to teachers and the media included the line, “Those who are allowed to work from home will be expected to come to the school periodically to work with other school staff and leaders.”
That sentence was missing from the copy of the announcement available on the county’s website.
“The impression that we all originally had was about the fact that there would be some accommodations made, that there would be some flexibility in the options we would have, still held to the high, high standards of Gwinnett County Public Schools, but in a position where we would have some choice,” Newman said.
Newman said she asked around to other teachers and found there are four groups that are impacted significantly by returning to work. They include: parents of children under 5; teachers with compromised immune systems; teachers who care for someone who is immunocompromised; and teachers who have children with special needs.
In Newman’s case, she has concerns about her young daughter.
District spokesman Bernard Watson said there are about six pieces of advice the school system’s human resources department is giving teachers who have concerns about returning to work in person.
“We are aware of the concerns of some of our teachers, and there are measures in place to address them,” Watson said. “If an educator has a concern, they should talk to their principal first and then to Human Resources.”
The advice human resources officials in the district are giving teachers includes:
♦ “If proximity to others is a concern, it may be that an alternative workspace could be secured. The teacher should talk to their principal. They may be allowed to work in an area of the school that is not being utilized (computer lab, gymnasium, theater, etc.).”
♦ “If a teacher’s doctor is advising that he/she quarantine, given health concerns and existing medical conditions, he/she may be eligible to receive up to 10 days of fully-paid leave, without having to use district sick leave.”
♦ “If the teacher is not being advised to quarantine, he/she can still take up to 10 days of leave without having to apply for a Leave of Absence. If the employee chooses to do this, he/she would just let his/her principal know of the dates of the absence, and enter the sick time through the emp♦ loyee portal.”
♦ “To stay out after 10 days, the employee would have to apply for a Leave of Absence. She/he would need to complete an FMLA request form, and have medical certification paperwork completed by a physician. The employee could receive up to 12 weeks of job protected leave. The leave would be paid for as long as the employee has accrued sick leave that could be applied.”
♦ “If the employee’s daycare center is closed due to COVID19, there are provisions for leave at two-thirds pay under the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act.”
♦ “If the employee has school-aged kids, those children may go to school with their parents.”
Newman said that information addresses many of the issues teachers have, but she said it doesn’t quite address the underlying issue teachers have had about the change.
“Unfortunately, the biggest concern from those who have signed the petition with me is that we were told we would have the option to work from home and that option has now been extracted from the public documentation on the county’s website,” Newman said.