Princeton Public Schools officials should reevaluate decision to make teachers take unpaid leave for the academic year

I am writing in response to the letter sent out by Michael Volpe, on behalf of Princeton Public Schools Human Resources, to teachers and staff who have asked for accommodations to work remotely. The letter tells teachers and staff who are requesting to work from home due to Covid concerns that they must take a leave of absence without pay and health insurance. I am alarmed and deeply concerned that our school district is asking our teachers and staff to “choose” between their lives and their livelihood. This is not a choice, it is a threat.

I have been hopeful about Dr. Galasso’s stewardship of Princeton Public Schools during these difficult days. In the short time that he has been superintendent, I found his approach – seemingly grounded, knowledgeable and compassionate – to be refreshing. I sincerely applaud and appreciate the district’s tremendous efforts and hard work in preparing for this unprecedented, challenging school year. I believed he and his team have been trying to act in the best interest of everyone in the PPS community. This latest decision, however, completely defies that notion.

In the interest of full disclosure, a little about me and my family: My husband teaches at Princeton High School; our two children are in PUMS this year; I teach at Fordham University in New York, fully remotely this semester; we live with my 81-year old mother-in-law. Due to health concerns – my own, my daughter’s, and my elderly mother-in-law’s – and the fact that both my husband and I typically work in a high-risk environment that involves interaction with many people for long periods of time, we decided that it would be in our family’s best interest to work from home. I can go into all of the many reasons why I believe reopening schools now – just as remote learning is falling into a rhythm and flu season begins – is still a bad idea, for us personally and PPS as a whole, but that is not the point of this letter. The point is that our decision was not taken lightly.

Each family in the Princeton community has had to weigh their priorities and sift through myriad possibilities to calibrate what risks they are willing and able to take. What choice is best for them – Send kids to school or keep them at home? Work in-person or remotely? This is the very choice that is being taken away from our teachers and school staff. For my family, as an example, all the careful consideration and planning and preventative behavior is all for naught if my husband is forced to teach in-person. For some PPS employees, the situation could be even more dire – the distress in the voice of the PHS science teacher who spoke during the Sept. 29 board meeting was chillingly palpable. Is this truly what we want to tell our educators and staff – that if they feel compelled to work from home in order to protect the health of their families and themselves, the only option is to take leave without pay and without health insurance? That they are in effect expendable? Is this an option that most
teachers and staff can even consider if they want to continue to provide for their families?

This “choice” is cruel and unconscionable.

Our dedicated PPS teachers and staff go the distance to educate and care for our children under ordinary circumstances, and that instinct has not changed. Teachers generally agree that in-person teaching is not only better for their students, but also for themselves – remote instruction requires more time, effort, preparation and creativity to do effectively than traditional teaching, and our educators have been rising courageously to the challenge.

Remote instruction may not be ideal, but it can be done and it can be done well – particularly if we (at home and at school) find ways to ensure that our children have some social interaction and screen-free time for some much-needed balance. Teachers and staff have put a great deal of work into delivering good remote education this fall. Why not allow those who feel the need to work from home continue to do so? In fact, given the limitations imposed by Covid-compliance in the classroom, they may even be able do their jobs more effectively that way – certainly they would be able to work with greater peace of mind. At the end of the day, teachers and staff know better than anyone the realities of what their jobs entail; if they are expressing concerns about returning to work in person, we should pay attention.

On the other hand, given that we are still operating in a pandemic, hybrid learning could in fact be far from ideal. Yes, (i) the numbers are currently very low in Princeton, and (ii) the mortality rate from Covid among children is minimal. However:(i) The numbers are low because we have been doing fairly well staying away from one another – reopening schools will create the very conditions where this virus thrives. And (ii) children for the most part may be spared from the ill effects of the disease, but they tend to be asymptomatic superspreaders, unknowingly bringing the disease home to vulnerable family members, or taking it to school to their teachers and peers. Every possible preventative measure has to be in place, every single protocol perfectly adhered to for it to work with any success – an extremely tall order, especially in the absence of reliable testing and tracing. In addition, what happens if a teacher does take that unpaid leave of absence because she feels that is the only way to preserve her health, or a teacher falls ill while on the job, or a teacher is simply exposed to the virus and must quarantine? Can the district easily replace the teacher on leave or the teacher who is sick with a substitute with the same experience and expertise? Will the teacher who is in quarantine then resume remote instruction? This will wreak tremendous havoc on the continuity and quality of education that PPS will be able to deliver.

My personal opinions notwithstanding, I do understand and respect that there are two distinct camps in our community – those who want schools to reopen and those who do not. Although we will be keeping our kids home for the time being, I support families that prefer to send their children to hybrid school – but not if that means putting our teachers and school staff in any kind of jeopardy that they are unable or unwilling, for whatever reason, to take on their own. Is this what we want to model to our students – that it is somehow okay to throw our “valued” teachers and staff under the bus? If our children do not already know, this is the perfect opportunity to teach them that the best way to overcome crises and adversity is to look out for one another and work together –not pit ourselves against each other or be willing to sacrifice others for our own betterment. I, as a Princeton resident, do not agree to bear the moral burden of this decision.

A friend recently remarked that this adverse outcome is the result of using “a conventional approach to an unconventional problem”. Certainly, the requirements of special-needs students and children whose parents are essential workers/cannot work remotely must be met first. After that, surely there are resourceful and innovative ideas that will meet the needs of the remainder of our (remote and hybrid) community without putting anyone in harm’s way? We in Princeton are especially fortunate – we have the means and tools to effectively face this challenge: students have new computers, families will be provided WiFi and hotspots if needed, we as a district have a surplus. It is up to the superintendent and school board of the Princeton Public Schools to find solutions that will serve our community without exacting such a high cost from their own “valued” employees.

This is bad policy, on both ethical and practical grounds. In the interest of myself, my family, and the teachers and staff who are facing an impossible choice, I strongly urge the superintendent and board to reevaluate the wisdom and humanity of their position.


Jhilam Iqbal

One Comment

  1. This makes perfect sense to me. While not quite as old as your mother-in-law….. but getting close…. my wife and I have had to make those same difficult choices about seeing friends and family. Surely our smart PPS Administration can figure out a way to accommodate those teachers who have real and valid health concerns, by scheduling them to do the remote classes. As I understand it, a significant percentage of students’ parents have opted to go “all remote” this semester. Let’s figure this out and care for our valued teachers.

    This is no different than telling restaurant workers that they must either come to work sick, or not get paid – but on a larger scale for each impacted teacher. We are fortunate that Gov. Murphy and the State Legislature passed an Earned Sick Days law a couple of years ago, so that workers would not have to make this awful choice. While Princeton is progressive in many ways, for some reason we failed to enact a local ordinance to this effect even as 10-12 other NJ towns and cities did. Let’s not make this mistake again!

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