Princeton Public Schools Denies Staff Requests To Work Remotely And Offers Unpaid Leave

Below is a letter written to all Princeton Regional Public Schools’ staff from  Human Resources Director Michael Volpe, who says that the district is denying requests to teach from home. Instead, staff can take a one-year unpaid leave of absence. Planet Princeton’s Krystal Knapp comments,

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.

Here’s the letter.

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.

Be well.

Sincerely,

Michael J. Volpe

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