Broward County public school teachers and non-instructional staff were told by the district in December that anyone still working remotely had to report to their in-person assignments this week.
Instead, since that Dec. 17 memo went out, almost 100 employees chose to retire and more than 100 took leave or called in sick Monday, the day they had to return to their schoolhouses, according to the head of the Broward Teachers Union.
Most of the staff who retired or called in sick are teachers, said Anna Fusco, BTU president.
This comes just days after BTU sued the school district in Broward Circuit Court aimed at stopping the return-to-work mandate.
Union: District forcing teachers to risk their lives amid COVID
The union argues that hundreds of school district employees have serious medical conditions that put their lives at risk should they become exposed to COVID-19. The complaint, filed Thursday, states the mandate is forcing them to choose “between their lives and their livelihoods.”
District officials could not be immediately reached for comment Monday, but Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said last week that getting more teachers and students back into the physical classroom is imperative. He said students’ grades have been suffering since the novel coronavirus pandemic began.
Runcie: Students are suffering due to remote learning
“We must bring these students back into our classrooms for more traditional classroom instruction, as well as to provide intervention and support to get them back on track to success,” Runcie said.
When the district allowed in-person learning to resume Oct. 9, it granted about 1,700 staff members COVID-related accommodations allowing them to work remotely. Runcie said last week that those employees were told then that they’d have to report back to their schools on Jan. 11.
“This date has not changed,” he said in a videoed address to the district last Wednesday.
Most have since reported back to their schools, but hundreds have not because they have medical conditions that put them at risk if they catch COVID-19.
The union counters in its lawsuit that it entered into a memorandum of understanding in August with the administration that gives preference for full-time remote work assignments to employees most vulnerable if they catch the virus, and that agreement does not expire until June 30.
And, those assignments are only subject to change based on the operational needs of a particular school, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit seeks to maintain the stay-at-home policy for medically compromised employees until an independent arbitrator can decide the matter.
The Broward school district employs 33,022 people, including 14,329 who are teachers.
COVID-19 cases on rise in Broward public schools
The union feels it’s unnecessary to mandate that all teachers return to the classroom when only between 25% and 30% of the district’s approximately 261,000 students have come back to in-person learning since the fall. And, Fusco said, not many more are expected to return between now and the end of the school year.
“We’re expecting 40% back on campus, if that much,” she said.
The mandated return also comes as COVID cases in Broward schools continue to rise.
As of Monday night, 730 students and 793 employees were confirmed to have tested positive for the coronavirus since October, according to the district’s website. This compares to 664 pupils and 724 staffers, respectively, as of last Thursday.
“Lots of positives came through last week and this week,” Fusco said.