Broward can order all teachers back to classrooms despite pandemic, arbitrator rules




 

Broward County Public Schools can require all teachers and other employees working remotely to return to their in-person assignments, but the district must provide the teachers union all information on how decisions on allowing or denying virtual assignments are made, a court-appointed arbitrator ruled Monday.

The ruling was in response to a Jan. 7 lawsuit filed by the Broward Teachers Union against the district over its return-to-class mandate for staffers who've been working remotely. The union argues the teachers and staff who are working remotely have underlying health conditions that make contracting COVID-19 life threatening.

Arbitrator Roger I. Abrams made his decision following a three-day hearing that ended Saturday.

Since the district sent a letter in mid-December ordering everyone back to brick-and-mortar assignments, the union has been arguing that the move is unnecessary because only about 35% of the system's roughly 240,000 students have returned to the classroom for the spring semester.

In the meantime, the district faces a new challenge as a result of the conflict with its teachers. Since December, more than 100 staff members, mostly teachers, decided to either resign or retire rather than return to campus.

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie has been urging teachers to come back because he wants them in the classroom to encourage more students to return to in-person learning, noting that nearly a third of the district's students are in danger of not making adequate academic progress during the pandemic.

When Broward reopened its schools to in-person learning Oct. 9, the administration granted about 1,700 employees' requests to continue working remotely. More than 600 have not returned, or about one-third.

It's not immediately known how many employees the district will require to report for work in person following the arbitrator's ruling. The decision will be made based on "the operational needs of schools," the district said in a press release.

In a statement this week, Runcie called Abrams' ruling "a win for our students."

"We recognize the health concerns of our teachers and will continue to balance their needs with the needs of students who are struggling and must be back in a safe and healthy school for face-to-face learning," he said.

Anna Fusco, BTU president, said she also considered the ruling a victory for her membership because the union has been asking the district to hand over its information on staffing requirements since the summer.

"We got what we asked for," Fusco said Tuesday.

Fusco is angry, however, that during the hearing, lawyers for the district showed social media posts by several of the teachers who've maintained their health is too compromised to return to school traveling, at parties and at political rallies.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel was first to report on the posts.

Fusco said the district broke the trust of the teachers by naming them during the hearings and exposing their ailments.

"It's the most deplorable thing I've ever seen them do," Fusco said. "They named people with severe illnesses and put it out to the public."

Keyla Concepcion, a Broward schools spokeswoman, said the district's legal team gathered the information to support its argument that the teachers are well enough to return to their assignments. And, she said, the employees made the information public by posting it on social media.

"In any litigation, research is routinely conducted in support of a legal defense, and information shared on social media is not considered to be private," Concepcion said in an email Tuesday.

Fusco, however, said most of the photos posted showed the employees outside and not around groups of people.

"They have underlying conditions. They're still not healthy enough to stand seven hours a day. Behind a mask. Breathing in the same air as everyone else, with so many of the schools with poor air quality," she said, adding that the union may take legal action against the district over showing the posts.

"We're going to do some action," Fusco said. "We're working on it with our attorneys."

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