Covert Collective Action? One-Third of Princeton Teachers Request Leaves of Absence.

For a completely different vibe than Lakewood on school reopenings (see previous post), let’s turn to Princeton Regional Public Schools. There, rumor has it that during this week’s (remote) Back to School night, a second-grade teacher informed parents that she was taking a leave of absence for the rest of the year. When a parent remarked that he hoped more teachers would do that in order to force the district to abandon plans to bring students back for a hybrid plan, the teacher agreed that this is the intention.

Princeton is practically a different country from Lakewood, although you can drive from one town to the other in 45 minutes. Princeton is wealthy, mostly white and Asian, and high-achieving, with a per pupil cost of  $18,596 a year. Lakewood is poor, mostly Latino, and low-achieving with a per pupil cost of $13,635 a year.

In the age of Covid, that’s not the only contrast.

Right now in Lakewood, two teachers are begging their principal and superintendent to let them take time off to check if they’re positive for Covid after exposure to an infected student. Lakewood teachers and staff members were evaluating special education students all through the spring (despite a “cease and desist” order from NJEA lawyers), holding an in-person Extended School Year during the summer, and having the distinction of being one of the few districts in NJ opting to start the year with full-time in-school learning, 

Princeton has been pretty much shut down since March (with an elegant remote instruction plan).  But there’s roiling discontent beneath the surface as the first day of hybrid instruction looms. Here’s a clue: The district made the unusual move (I’d say unprecedented but don’t for sure) announcement that it would deny leaves of absence due to health concerns. Instead, teachers will have to take a one-year unpaid leave.

Here’s part of a letter from Princeton Human Resources Director Michael Volpe:

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.

Sounds to me like the Princeton Teachers Association and the Princeton School Board are playing chicken, wondering who will blink first. To wit, among a faculty of 337 teachers, currently 123 teachers have requested leaves of absence, which sounds more like a collective walk-out than the odds of one-third of the faculty having pre-existing conditions or living with someone who does. 

Now, to be fair, in Lakewood teachers are also being denied leave, like the two teachers above. But Lakewood hasn’t made an all-out ban on paid leave. Board attorney Michael Inzelbuch writes here, “some of those teachers may be eligible, after completing the fitness for duty evaluation  and pending their holding the appropriate certifications, for in building remote teaching assignments in isolated classrooms.” 

But maybe that’s a distinction without a difference.

Both districts are committed to in-person learning, Princeton in hybrid form and Lakewood in full-time form. Both districts are denying leaves to teachers, either due to close contact with someone who tests positive or on general principle.

How does this all affect kids? I don’t know. I don’t know who’s right. Does the risk of contagion outweigh loss of learning? Is it the other way around? I’m eager to hear your thoughts, readers.

What do you think?

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