Palm Beach Post | by Sonja Isger | September 8, 2020
The president of the county’s teachers union has fired off a demand that the school district’s Human Resources chief be removed from his job for what the union leader described as a “shameful and intentional refusal” to set up a process for employees with health concerns to seek permission to work remotely when campuses reopen.
“This was not a mistake. This was not an oversight or error of any kind,” Classroom Teachers Association President Justin Katz wrote in an email to Superintendent Donald Fennoy Tuesday morning. “This was an intentional refusal to act on a valid concern that directly relates to the lives and safety of the district’s most vulnerable employees.”
Katz contends in his letter that Gonzalo La Cava and his staff shirked the task because they didn’t want to do the job that “might create extra work or be difficult for them to accomplish and implement.”
Neither Fennoy nor La Cava could be reached for comment Tuesday, but in the early afternoon the department opened a portal for those applications, and with the emailed notification came a personal message from La Cava.
“As a former teacher and principal, and the father of two middle school students, I know this is a stressful time especially for the teachers of Palm Beach County,” La Cava wrote.
“I assure you that the Department of Human Resources has been working around the clock to develop a potential path for teachers who may be eligible for remote instruction. Please know that It is my number one priority to ensure that every teacher, especially those with medical needs, receives the support and guidance they deserve,” he continued.
The union’s blistering rebuke comes just two weeks before campuses are due to fully open their doors to students.
It also lands less than a week after district leaders admitted in a public school board meeting that they still had no system for teachers and other staff with medical issues that put them at greater health risks should they be exposed to COVID-19.
The admission shocked and infuriated school board members who said they’d expected such a policy to be in place already.
Fennoy answered the criticism by clearing the decks last Thursday to work on the matter. Only then were teachers promised that an application process would be created, Katz said, and even that promise was fulfilled days after first promised.
Priorities set for remote work
Wednesday, the school board will consider the new policy behind allowing employees to work remotely.
The policy allows people who have tested positive or are living with someone who has to work from home temporarily, with their supervisor’s approval.
Separately, it lays out the order of priority for those seeking to work from home for an extended assignment.
First priority goes to those who have an accommodation under the Americans with Disability Act due to a disability that may place them at higher risk for serious complications if they contract COVID-19. Second consideration goes to those who have underlying medical conditions that put them at higher risk as confirmed by a doctor’s note. Third priority goes to those age 65 and older and then there’s anyone else who wishes to be considered.
The district is to establish a panel to review the applications and determine eligibility based on these priorities. The assignments are subject to change “based upon the needs of the school/department and /or prioritzation” as listed above, according to the document prepared for the meeting.
But the moves did little to quell weeks of frustration.
“As the elected leader of the CTA, I am demanding the immediate removal of the Chief of Human Resources. He has proven unfit and unqualified for the job at the worst possible time. CTA has lost all confidence and cannot allow the Department of Human Resources to remain under the leadership of such incapable hands,” Katz wrote.
The criticism extends beyond the work-from-home policy or lack thereof.
Teachers and parents say too many questions remain unanswered. Tuesday afternoon, dozens planned to drive by or carry signs in front of district headquarters.
Among the organizers, Atlantic High theater teacher Stephen Berlanga, who said confusion remains about simple things like who is going to wipe down the desks between classes.
“The five minutes between classes isn’t enough time to go desk to desk and santize before the next kids show up,” Berlanga said.
And what about the 6-foot rule when it comes to student placement?
Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald has said all schools will begin with this standard — but may be forced to move as close as 3 feet in certain conditions as permitted by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatric guidelines. But who will make that call when?
The ‘Frankenstein’ model
Berlanga and his colleagues across the county also wonder how effective they’ll be when addressing students in the room and those at the other end of an internet connection simultaneously.
They are echoing complaints heard around the state and across the country.
Some are calling this mode “simultaneous” teaching. In his letter to Fennoy, Katz referred to it as the “Frankenstein model,” and questioned the quality of such lessons.
“While we recognize due to the COVID-19 situation that many instances of simultaneous teaching may not be avoidable, it is totally unacceptable that only 1-2 weeks before returning to campuses, that the district has finally and only marginally acknowledged that distance learning students should be paired with distance learning teachers in every situation where this is possible; and that on-campus students should be paired with on-campus teachers,” Katz wrote.
Last week, the district began a second round of surveys to determine how many of its 175,000 public school students will walk into classrooms once they’re opened. Tuesday morning, the decision had almost evenly split the nearly 70,600 who had responded so far, with about 48 percent saying they would attend in person.
The union is also concerned about how teachers will be deployed on campus once those students arrive. Katz said the district plans to eliminate teachers’ planning time in order to post them as monitors elsewhere during those times.
He also complained about the lack of communication regarding what PPE and sanitizing products will be available to them at school.
Teachers have heard some buzz about possibly having them engaged in some cleaning activities, but the word is traveling second hand — nothing has come in writing, Katz said in an interview Tuesday morning.
“They have no faith due to this lack of communication that there will even be enough proper PPE and sanitization products available to them to protect the health and safety of themselves or their students,” he said. “This lapse in communication needs to be remedied immediately both at the upcoming school board meetings and directly via communication to your employees.”
Katz intends to address these concerns again during a press conference Wednesday morning and during public comments at the school board workshop Wednesday afternoon .
“The SDPBC currently faces another kind of crisis on top of COVID-19. That crisis is one of a sheer lack of faith and confidence that the leadership of our school district are willing and capable of doing their job, so that your teachers can properly do theirs. I communicate these concerns not to diminish the efforts of the district staff and leadership, but to demand better of them. Anything short of that is setting us all up for failure.”
Photo: Justin Katz, Palm Beach County CTA President, talks via Zoom with the School Board Members from the Fulton-Holland Educational Services Center in West Palm Beach, Sseptember 2, 2020. [ALLEN EYESTONE/The Palm Beach Post]