Princeton Public Schools teachers and staff told they can take an unpaid leave of absence for the school year due to COVID-19 concerns
Most of the teachers and staff members in the Princeton Public Schools district who sought to work from home for the school year due to COVID-19 health concerns have been told instead that they can take an unpaid leave of absence for the academic year.
The human resources department for the school district sent letters to most of the teachers and staff members who had requested accommodations for the school year because of underlying medical conditions to inform them that their requests had been denied.
“With a return to in-person on-site learning with students in October, granting your request would not allow us to operate our schools without putting an undue burden on the district,” reads the letter to teachers and staff members from Michael Volpe, the district’s head of human resources.
Volpe wrote that since students will be physically present in classes, teaching from home would not be a reasonable accommodation.
“The requirement that the district return to in-person instruction is premised on the idea that the teacher will be physically present in the classroom with some students, and the district believes that it would not be fulfilling its obligation to provide in-person instruction if the teacher is not located in the classroom with students. Furthermore, one of the essential functions of a teacher is to supervise students in the classroom—addressing student behavior, redirecting students who stray off task, and maintaining an atmosphere that is conducive to learning,” Volpe wrote. “There simply is no way to transfer part of the essential functions at your position to someone else. Additionally, hiring another teacher to provide in-person instruction in your place would present an undue hardship to the district, requiring the district to pay the salary and benefits for two teachers to teach one class of students.”
The letter then outlines safety measures that are available to teachers and staff members, including enhanced PPE, hand sanitizer, hand-washing stations, and classroom modifications for more social distancing.
District officials anticipate that the school population during instructional days will be less than half of the normal capacity because some students are choosing a remote-only learning model and in-person students will not be in classes every day.
“We do indeed hope you feel comfortable with the options noted and the steps that the district is taking to provide a safe environment in coordination with the information that we are receiving from the local Board of Health and the County,” Volpe wrote. “Make no mistake about it – we know how valuable you are to our schools and we want you working with and teaching our students when they return to school. In spite of this, we know that you may have a difficult decision to make as you have to decide as to the amount of risk you feel and what you personally want to do in order to mitigate that risk.”
When the district resumes in-person instruction, Volpe wrote that it may become possible to allow some requests to teach from home, and in some cases it might be necessary depending on the staff member’s area of certification. “But at the present time, there is a lack of fully virtual cohorts that would allow such an option,” Volpe wrote. “We will keep your request on file in case this can happen as we would like to work with you.”
Planet Princeton asked a district spokesperson how many district teachers and staff members have requested the ability to work from home for the school year, how many were given an accommodation, and how many so far have decided to take the unpaid leave of absence. On Tuesday, district officials refused to disclose the information. The district’s spokesperson said the district doesn’t discuss personnel matters. Yet Planet Princeton did not ask for the individual names of staff members or teachers or want details about individual health issues. Planet Princeton asked for general numbers. Employees said to their knowledge, only one or two people have been given permission to work from home so far. In August, district officials reported the number of staff members seeing accommodations publicly at school board meetings. As of mid-August, 89 teachers and staff members in the district had asked to work from home.
Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso said in a written statement that the Princeton Public Schools district has been fortunate that staff members are ready to come back to the classrooms. “We are working hard with our staff to open schools in early October,” Galasso said. “We hope to have students from Pre-K through Grade 5 back in classrooms starting on October 12 and the rest of our students back on October 19.”
A recent survey showing how many students want to return to school for the hybrid model and how many want to pursue the all-remote option will affect teacher assignments.
Galasso said in his written statement that the district has been working though requests to work from home, and that district officials hope the work done recently in terms of facility upgrades and safety protocols will make faculty and staff feel more confident about returning in person.
The full letter to teachers and staff from Human Resources Director Michael Volpe:
As you are a valued member of the Princeton Public Schools, It is difficult to deliver news that does not meet your expectations. In the world we live in right now, we know that the medical concerns you have are real. No one would deny that. We also know that the risks in our outside world are real. However, I need to inform you that your request for work from home as an accommodation for the 2020-21 school year has been considered is regretfully being denied.
The district has indeed received your request for an accommodation, and is aware that the reason why you were requesting to work from home was because you have an underlying medical condition that you feel would qualify you as an individual with a disability, potentially making you eligible for temporary accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Ad (ADA) due to the COV1D-19 pandemic. However, with a return to in-person on-site learning with students in October, granting your request would not allow us to operate our schools without putting an undue burden on the district.
More specifically, since there will be a group of students physically present in your class(es) each day, the district does not believe that teaching from home will be a reasonable accommodation. The requirement that the district return to in-person instruction is premised on the idea that the teacher will be physically present in the classroom with some students, and the district believes that it would not be fulfilling its obligation to provide in-person instruction if the teacher is not located in the classroom with students. Furthermore, one of the essential functions of a teacher is to supervise students in the classroom—addressing student behavior, redirecting students who stray off task, and maintaining an atmosphere that is conducive to learning. Teaching virtually also makes it much more difficult to monitor and assess student learning in real time, as well as limiting the ability to differentiate instruction to meet individual student needs. Therefore, the district believes that the presence of a teacher in the classroom is a necessary component of the essential functions of the position.
Accordingly, there simply is no way to transfer part of the essential functions at your position to someone else. Additionally, hiring another teacher to provide in-person instruction in your place would present an undue hardship to the district, requiring the district to pay the salary and benefits for two teachers to teach one class of students.
That being said, please know that the district is working hard to provide support for your safe return to teaching. We can offer you a variety of other measures, including the steps that the district is taking in order to get schools ready for reopening. First, as you may already know, the district has taken steps to modify the classroom environment by reducing the amount of children in a class on any given day by half. We anticipate that the school population during instructional days will be even less than half of the normal capacity, given that several students may be choosing a “remote only” option, and the in-person students will not be in class every day. Additionally, the district is prepared to have enhanced personal protective equipment that you can request and would be provided to you. The schools can also create modifications to the classroom environment to promote social distancing or allow you to work in larger spaces. The district is also willing and ready to provide hand sanitizer or a station for frequent handwashing, and possibly other similar alterations that would permit the delivery of in-person instruction while maintaining the health and safety of both you and your students. Furthermore, shortly an educational video that includes healthcare professionals and district employees will be distributed to all staff in order to answer a series of frequently asked questions and provide factual information about COVID-19 and the current status of COVID-19 in the Princeton area.
We do indeed hope you feel comfortable with the options noted and the steps that the district is taking to provide a safe environment in coordination with the information that we are receiving from the local Board of Health and the County. Make no mistake about it – we know how valuable you are to our schools and we want you working with and teaching our students when they return to school. In spite of this, we know that you may have a difficult decision to make as you have to decide as to the amount of risk you feel and what you personally want to do in order to mitigate that risk. Along these lines, some staff members may wish look into leave of absence options. While information about this process has been provided to all staff previously, for your convenience a synopsis of the process and relevant information is below.
In order to potentially access leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), there is paperwork that does need to be filled out. Please note that leave of absence requests must be verified with specific reasons and the correct documentation as noted and then Board approved before a staff member is permitted to go on leave. All paperwork pertaining for leaves is located in our “Internal Docs” accessible through PPS link. In Internal Docs, you will find a “Human Resources” subfolder. In that subfolder, there is a folder entitled “COVID FFCRA”. There, you will find all paperwork that you will need in order to apply for leave, including:
1) FFCRA Form Directions – update 8.20.2020.pdf – First please read through the directions which give detailed instructions as to how to fill out the FFCRA leave form 2) PPS FFCRA Leave form – editable PDF.pdf – Please fill out the form itself. Read carefully, as certain types of leave require that additional documentation be provided 3) FMLA form – Employee’s Condition.pdf OR FMLA form – Family Member’s Condition.pdf – FMLA forms for either yourself or a family member in case your leave requires that you fill these out as well.
Keep in mind that all leave entitlements combined, some of which have varying rates of pay and some that are unpaid cover you for 12 weeks total. Any leave beyond 12 weeks is completely discretionary by the Board, which you can indeed ask for as an option. For full transparency, keep in mind that discretionary leave may or may not be approved, would be unpaid, would likely suspend your pension contributions, and would cause you to have to go on COBRA health benefits which are slightly more expensive. If you have questions about pensions, please contact Mary Herbert at extension 2014, or for questions about health benefits, contact Peggy Thompson at extension 2015.
Specifically, so you are not under any misunderstanding, please note that the only type of FFCRA leave that will partially pay you for all twelve weeks is a leave due to childcare needs with a maximum benefit of $200 per day depending on your level of salary. Most documented FFCRA leaves that would be requested would only pay you for two weeks. If you do intend to apply for a leave, please inform both your principal and supervisor. When returning leave paperwork, please send all of this information to Lucy Del Buono in the Office of Human Resources.
When the district does resume in-person instruction, it may become possible to allow some requests to teach from home. It might even be necessary depending on your area of certification. But at the present time, there is a lack of fully virtual cohorts that would allow such an option. We will keep your request on file in case this can happen as we would like to work with you.
This is a difficult time for us all and the last thing that we would want you to feel is that you are not being supported, but it is understandable if that is exactly what you are feeling at this time. I know that this is difficult news to hear in our very difficult times. It is a decision that the district believes is in the best interest of children who are also going through this difficult time.
If you need to talk further or need any additional support, please feel free to reach out to the Office of Human Resources where we can have an interactive dialogue about this matter with a union representative or any concerns that you have.
Michael J. Volpe
This is absolutely ridiculous! What will you do if one of our teachers die from COVID? How will you explain that to our students?!
I would fire the teachers! Wear your mask and go to school. The teachers union is behind this nonsense. I bet most of these teachers were at the beach, bbq’s, stores etc all summer. Get to work!
Wow, Javier, such a lack of trust and faith in the teachers requesting leave during a global pandemic. Why? Are you a parent of a student at PPS? Have you had a negative experience? The facts are: 89 teachers spoke up and requested to work from home in the 2020-2021 school year — not go on vacation. Think anyone loves Zoom? Of course not. But, Zoom is far preferable to Covid-19 for vulnerable populations. Shame on your thoughtless comments. I hope the teachers can negotiate and find some type of middle ground where they feel safe, supported, and fully heard.
One has to ask whether there will really be remote instruction happening if the teacher teaches from home. There were too many teachers last spring who essentially didn’t teach from March to June (ask the students!) for the school district to assume that quality instruction will happen.
Dupree do you own the DUPREE CENTER FOR CHILDREN? If you do it’s a shame that you are putting your self interests above our children and teachers best interest.
We love our teachers! Don’t kill our teachers!!!
And what is your evidence that any of them will die? In Mercer County, currently .168% of residents have died – or possibly died – from Covid. That is about 3 out of every 2,000 people, but most of them were senior citizens in nursing homes and care facilities. The number of deaths in other scenarios and demographics is vanishingly small, and there is no reasonable assumption that any teachers will die if procedures are followed – and in fact there is little evidence that teachers will die even if procedures are not followed perfectly. If you care about science, and I can only assume that you are someone who claims to, concern yourself with reasonable expectations, not apocalyptic pronouncements.
So senior citizens are expendable? What perverse logic. Shame on you.
We already don’t have enough school social workers and therapists. What resources will you provide when my child’s favorite teacher dies?
Teachers aren’t going to die if proper procedures, like wearing quality masks are followed. Students will be losing much of the year educationally if in-person schooling doesn’t resume. Unfortunately, there are risks, but the evidence is that they can be managed very well.
As a pediatrician, I honestly have seen so many patients and families suffer tremendously both mentally and physically due to remote learning. I’ve seen this happen disproportionately to disadvantaged youth. In addition, students are not learning as well, especially students who have ADHD and are disabled. Many days, every patient of mine has side effects from not being at school. Because of this, I feel that our schools need to open. With low numbers of COVID positive patients, appropriate PPE and decreased numbers of students, schools are not as unsafe as people perceive, and the risk to teachers is low.
Who is saying school can’t start in person? Teachers at risk with health issues like diabetes and heart problems, and pregnant teachers with health issues are requesting that they teach from home. You have almost 40 percent of the students learning remotely even when the schools open. A creative school district would match up the 70 or so teachers who need to work from home with the students whose families have chosen to learn from home. Oh, but that would take creative thinking. Students and their families can choose to learn fully remotely if they feel they are at risk but teachers at risk have no choice?
Creative thinking is not a strength of the PPS administration. We need to vote the incumbents on the School Board out !!
Alternate title: “Princeton Public Schools teachers and staff told that their requests to work from home because of underlying medical conditions have been denied”
Interesting that less than 25% of staff asked to work from home in this district. The requests were medical in nature and were all denied. Princeton Public Schools clearly feels teachers are dispensable. Somehow 50% of West Windsor staff has requested and were approved and they are making it all work.
Apparently 80% of WW parents requested remote learning. In Princeton, 15-30%, depending on the school.
The overcrowding in Princeton schools puts our teachers and students in grave peril.
This is the time for teachers and the community to strike! Faculty stand strong. We support you. We hear you.
We have a responsibility to care for those who are particularly susceptible to Covid-19: teachers, students with underlying medical conditions and elderly.
We need to rethink our school board, and demand that our elected officials take a stance with the community as a whole in mind.
This is deeply shocking and disturbing news. I support teachers and their lives!!
People in many professions face some risks to earn a living, some small and some larger. For teachers perhaps this risk analysis has changed, although in practice by a very tiny amount. So it’s understandable if a few of them choose to leave the profession. However, when a profession wants to minimize their risks by shifting the costs to the rest of society, such as the police, we have society-wide problems. The same will happen with education if remote school continues.
But the teachers were told initially that their requests WOULD be accommodated and now they are not. How is that fair?
As with everything related to COVID, this is very complicated and nuanced…
But I trust that the majority of teachers that have requested accommodations are doing so to protect themselves or a loved one, not so they can sip Pina Coladas poolside in Miami.
The school district has made abundantly clear that they place great importance on the initiatives of equity and wellness for all within the district; teacher / student / parent alike. A great deal of the frustration and anxiety around EVERYTHING COVID-related stems from a lack of clarity and commitment to reduce ambiguity and display confidence and competence in the reopening plans.
So the following questions are for the district to answer in an effort to help explain or understand what the back-to-school plan is and how they are viewed through the lens of the district’s priorities of equity and wellness.
In the spirit of equity, will teachers be seeing those responsible for the decision to return to in-class operations (Dr. Galasso / Dr. Ginsberg / Mr. Volpe / Board Members /and other members of Valley Road administration) in the most populated buildings in October?
Equity is rarely possible without transparent standards. Will the qualification criteria the district uses to grant or deny a teacher’s request for safety ever be shared?
Since this was a form letter that all teachers who requested accommodations had received, was it always the plan to deny everyone? If everyone was denied, why have teachers go through this exercise as it presented an impact to teacher’s wellness by a) causing them to go to their doctor during quarantine and b) getting their hopes up that this exercise would actually have a positive outcome.
Again, it’s not all teachers who are requesting this. It is wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, etc. that are worried about their safety or the safety of someone close to them in their house. Sure, you can say “I’m sure teachers were at the beach during the summer” but the wide open spaces of the beach or a backyard BBQ afford greater social distancing and ventilation opportunities than cramming 16 people into a classroom built 40 years ago with windows that only open 6×6 inches. If the district felt that there would be undue hardship due to the amount of requests, can they share some data that actually shows that?
People want things to return to normal. Schools should reopen, but safely while accommodating student and teacher health concerns, equally. Why is there unequal accommodations for families who don’t think it’s safe for their student to go back, despite the district’s insistence that it is, but teachers can’t receive ethe same accommodations?
Remote-schooling in the spring was hell. It was crisis-teaching, not tele-schooling. Some teachers were able to adapt quickly and others probably weren’t. My career is in software training and enablement, and the school district has taken next to no action to properly enable teachers to remote-teach. A few voluntary “tips” sessions here and there and at-the-last-second “tech mentors” have been appointed to pick up the slack, but the teachers have only been instructed to “make a robust learning experience” in a brand new LMS platform that was rolled out poorly. Why has the district not made remote teaching enablement an actual priority?
With respect to the 12 week leave, it places undue financial hardship and stress on teachers, as many rely on the benefits, and couldn’t afford to pay the premium back to the district. The 12 week leave places undue stress and hardship on the departments and supervisors, logistically. The 12 week leave really seems more like a dare from the district than a viable option. Wouldn’t allowing some of the teachers to remain safe and still do their work remotely be the most equitable solution for everyone?
On the topic of wellness and safety, hand washing and sanitation stations are great, but this is an airborne illness so it seems like throwing tomatoes at a house fire. Sure, it’s something, but it is unclear just how effective of an investment that is. As previously mentioned, some of the rooms have under-functioning or non-functional windows to create proper levels of ventilation in the rooms. Will these windows be fixed to facilitate and ensure teacher wellness? While on the topic of windows, does the fresh air flow meet OSHA standards or are you creating a hazardous work environment?
No solution to this will be clean or easy. But 2020 has (hopefully) taught us to be a bit more sensitive and compassionate, but the district seems to have missed that cultural shift. None of the teachers are saying that the schools should be closed for everyone. It might make a bit of a logistical nightmare, sure, but no one is trying to barricade the doors from opening. This article is about people who fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Please let us keep that in mind as the district clearly hasn’t.
Some of the points raised above concerning the transparency of the re-opening plans and granting of dispensations to select teachers are not without merit and should be addressed by the school district. However, it is disingenuous to pretend that any feasible measures the district might adopt would mollify the overstated fear that a partial return to the classroom –with all students wearing masks and observing reasonable distances– would nevertheless be tantamount to a death sentence. The hybrid model PPS had initially adopted would have seen much reduced numbers of students, especially the youngest cohorts who learn little or nothing via Zoom, rotate through the school for very few hours each week. Both Princeton and the surrounding County have maintained case counts well below those recommended as the benchmark for opening. What’s more, the science (as distinct from the anecdotal media accounts) gives us every reason to be confident that transmission between the youngest children is negligible (again, one must distinguish between elementary-school age kids and teens). What’s more, to ascribe to critics of the teachers who defy the district the cheap allegation that we suspect teachers of wishing to slack-off poolside is not worthy of such an important debate. Most of the complaints about some teachers’ refusal to accept a reasonable amount of risk stem from well-founded fears about the long-term effects of all but cancelling school for the youngest children (let’s at least dispense with the preposterous pretense that K through third grade, if not higher, can be replicated online); to say nothing of the extraordinary burden placed on many families with limited means. I fear that this crisis has revealed some teachers’ precarious commitment to their vocation. A great many parts of Europe and Asia with infection rates similar to those in our community have reopened schools, with all practicable safety protocols, but without significant contingents of teachers refusing to return to classes. A different ethos.
Teachers ARE essential workers. Period. They need to be in the classroom with students for many fundamental reasons. EVERY essential worker has the same health concerns as these teachers, BUT, other essential workers have recognized that they have to be present to perform their professional duties. If an employee of our district does not feel they can be in the classroom, then they should opt to take a leave of a absence from their job. JUST like every essential worker has had to do in making their decision. It is ACTUALLY the teacher’s union who has done their members a disservice by confusing them into believing they are not essential workers.
Agreed. Teachers provide an essential service why is thIs any different then the essential workers in grocery stores, post offices etc. Why are we quarantining perfectly healthy children? If you feel as though you can’t perform the functions of your job and take a leave of absence. I’m so tired of seeing these kids suffer other peoples unhealthy choices.
I don’t understand why everyone thinks this is ridiculous. At least they’re being offered unpaid leave for the year if they’re uncomfortable. Every other job is getting unpaid leave or losing their jobs. Teachers can expect to be treated the same. If you’re not willing to work you can’t expect to get paid.
We all realize that these are unprecedented times and maintaining health and safety is paramount. As a community we have done an amazing job adjusting to the “new” norm and in particular our very young (3 and 4 year old) members have demonstrated such flexibility and resilience through this ordeal. I’m so surprised and proud to see how well they have adapted to following standard practices such as hand washing, social distancing and wearing masks. They are doing their part so lets do ours and get them back in school.
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