1,700 South Florida teachers ordered back to classrooms next week

About 1,700 South Florida teachers who have been working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic have been ordered to return to their campuses when the spring semester begins next Monday.

Some teachers say they are living in fear as principals and Broward County school administrators each say it is the other's responsibility to approve future remote work, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

"Some of us have conditions that specifically state if we catch this virus, we’re dead," said Anne Skurnick, a computer science teacher in Pembroke Pines, who has been teaching remotely due to the effects of medicine she takes for rheumatoid arthritis. "No one is taking responsibility for extending accommodations."

The district wants to eliminate "overflow rooms," where students sit in large areas with students from other classes and take online classes from a remotely working teacher.

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"They’d rather us take a leave and have no certified teacher to teach," Skurnick told the newspaper. "So it’s better to have a sub than a teacher from home?"

The issue could affect other districts. In Palm Beach County, there are 818 teachers working remotely, while Miami-Dade County has around 800 teachers working from home. South Florida has been especially hard-hit by COVID-19.

"Assignments are subject to change based upon the needs of the schools," said Gonzalo La Cava, human resources chief for Palm Beach schools, told the newspaper. "There is no guarantee on the length of time an employee may be permitted to continue to work remotely."

Miami-Dade Superintendent said the district is not currently "contemplating changing the process."

All Broward County teachers worked remotely until October when schools reopened.

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The district reviewed about 5,000 requests for remote work and approved about 2,000, 1,700 of whom are teachers. Priority was given to employees with certain health conditions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease that could make the effects of COVID-19 more serious.

The teachers taught both students remotely learning and those who had returned to school.

"It was the expectation that if we continued e-learning, we would continue accommodations," School Board member Debbi Hixon said.

As many students struggled, Superintendent Robert Runcie pledged to bring more kids back to campus. But parents of only 39% of students said they will return for the semester that begins Jan. 13, according to a school district survey. That's up from 26% in the fall semester.

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The district sent a letter Dec. 16 to remotely working teachers that said their principal or supervisor would let them know if they could keep working at home.

A statement from Chief Communications Officer Kathy Koch said principals decide whether to extend the accommodations, "based on the operational needs at each individual school," the newspaper reported.

In an email this week, Lisa Maxwell, executive director of the Broward Principals and Assistants Association, instructed her members not to approve any remote work for next semester. She said they have no authority to extend accommodations past Friday.

She told the newspaper that principals do not review people's medical records.

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"A principal is not choosing between Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Jones and judging whose medical issue is more worthy."

Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, says many teachers have notes from doctors saying they should work remotely due to health conditions.

"So who do you think will get the blame legally when these teachers get the illness and die?" Fusco wrote in an email to School Board members.

"Our teachers and support staff deserve to have a straight-forward answer. They are not shown they are valued," Fusco wrote. "They all should be getting medals for going above and beyond during this stressful time. Instead they are being put in such a compromised position to not keep their career."