Most teachers ordered to return to school despite COVID-19 fears

Scott Travis, South Florida Sun Sentinel
·4 min read

Thousands of Broward teachers who have been working from home due to concerns over COVID-19 are being ordered to return to their classrooms.

The school district received requests from about 5,000 teachers — a third of the work force — for accommodations to work remotely, but only about 800 are being approved, Superintendent Robert Runcie told the School Board Wednesday. The district had allowed most to teach from home since schools opened Oct. 9 while they awaited a decision.

The district gave priority to teachers who have health conditions that put them at high risk for serious illness or death should they get infected with COVID-19, such as cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.

About 1,000 teachers who have at-risk family members are being denied, as are most who have health conditions deemed “Priority 2," such as asthma, HIV and high blood pressure.

Runcie said the district’s COVID-19 accommodations are already more generous than most districts. He said there’s no way a school district, or any agency, can function if they granted all requests, including ones based on the health of employees' family members.

“We might as well shut down the district and shut down the country if we’re going to do that," he said.

The district is advising teachers and other employees who don’t want to return to go on leave.

Some teachers were ordered back to work on Wednesday, while others will be expected to return by next week. When a class is taught by a teacher remotely, the students at school must still be supervised, forcing the district to hire substitutes, district administrator Valerie Wanza said.

Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco and some board members said it’s ridiculous to make teachers return since 80% of children are learning remotely. Some of these teachers have only two or three students in a class. They said the district should match teachers who want to work remotely with students learning from home. But that could be disruptive, requiring the district to overhaul student schedules and force students to have new teachers and classmates, Wanza said.

Hundreds of teachers have flooded the inboxes of School Board members and district administrators with stories about how teaching at school could risk the lives of their family members with fragile health conditions, such as cancer, emphysema or high blood pressure.

Maria C. Garcia, a science teacher at Plantation High, called the denial of her accommodation request “unfair and life threatening” in an email to Human Resources Chief Alan Strauss. She said her mom is 82 and has heart conditions.

“I really cannot risk the life of my mother, neither can I be without a job. Additionally, almost all of my students chose to stay remote,” Garcia wrote.

Fusco said she’s heard from two teachers in the past few days who say they are resigning because they won’t put their family member at risk.

“The message they are receiving is ‘I don’t care if they take leave. I don’t care if they quit,'" Fusco said. “I’m not OK with that.”

Several board members said they sympathize with the teachers' plight but placed blame on Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who forced the district to reopen schools this fall earlier than they wanted. Broward had been teaching students remotely since late March and was the last district to open its campuses. They urged lobbying DeSantis and state leaders for more flexibility.

“We have to have a unified effort with neighboring districts and unions," board member Patti Good said. “We really need to start now letting the governor know this is a major issue.”

But the state could move in the opposite direction. DeSantis has been pushing for students to learn on campus, saying COVID-19 isn’t a major health threat to children. The state has approved remote learning only for this semester, and the state may decide to require students to return to campuses in January.

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