FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. — Fairfax County Public Schools have given hundreds of teachers and staffers four more days to decide if they'll return to school in the next couple of weeks after WUSA9 began asking about an email sent out to the employees requiring an answer in just two days' time.
Over 650 Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) teachers were notified Wednesday evening that they may have to return in-person to teach in October, according to the teacher's union in the county.
Many staff members are angry the school district gave them less than 48 hours to decide if they would come back.
According to the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers (FCFT), FCPS emailed some staff members Wednesday night asking them to decide on whether to accept an in-person position, submit an American with Disabilities Act (ADA) request, take an unpaid leave of absence, apply for leave under FFCRA for childcare reasons and then return for in-person instruction, resign or retire.
The FCFT said the initial email from the school system gave staff members until Oct. 2 at 4:30 p.m. to make a decision. Since WUSA9 reported on the issue, FCPS has extended that deadline to Tuesday, October 6 at 4:30 p.m.
"From our perspective, just two days isn’t enough time for staff to choose between their jobs or the health and safety of their families," the FCFT said in a statement.
"Less than 48 hours, by close of business tomorrow. That's just not an acceptable period of time to ask people who had no heads up on what choices they're going to make concerning their health," said a special ed instructional staffer who got the email, but asked us to withhold her name because she feared retaliation for speaking to the media.
She has a compromised immune system but said she has yet to hear back from the school system about whether it will accommodate her disability and allow her to continue to work with students remotely.
"We want to be back with our kids. We just need our health to be considered," she said, the fear and anxiety clear in her voice.
Another longtime special ed teacher told us she is now seriously considering taking a leave of absence, even though it would be unpaid.
The teacher's union is hoping that the school system keeps its 11 Pillars of a Safe Reopening into consideration when giving staff the option to work and to feel safe in their work environments.
School spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell released a lengthy response to questions from WUSA9 Thursday afternoon:
- This communication was sent to a specific group of teachers and classroom instructional support staff to obtain updated information about their intention to return in support of in-person instruction. The data will help inform the next steps for staffing. Staff responses are not binding however principals and HR will follow up with individuals regarding their decisions.
- Due to feedback from some staff members (about the timeframe to declare their intent on returning to school buildings), recipients of this communication will be sent an additional letter this evening that will extend the timeframe to respond from Friday at 4:30 pm to Tuesday, October 6 at 4:30 p.m.
- FCPS regrets the anxiety felt by these staff members. This has been a tremendously difficult period and our staff has all worked hard to remain connected to their students and schools. We realize the hardships and sacrifices made by our staff and sincerely empathize with them.
- FCPS also realizes that many students have difficulty learning in a virtual environment. The superintendent presented detailed plans regarding phased -in reopening schools for the division's most vulnerable students to the school board and the public at a September 22 Board Meeting.
- Following that meeting last week, teachers and other instructional staff were notified about the specific cohorts of students that would start in-person instruction this month. The cohorts include career and technical education classes, preschool autism classes, English language learners, and other special education students.
- These students represent 3.5 percent of the total student population and 653 teachers and other instructional staff is needed to provide instruction to these students.
- FCPS has received over 2000 staff requests for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – an 8000% increase.
- Determination for whether an employee’s request for an ADA accommodation can be granted depends on the individual employee’s essential job functions, and the staffing needs of individual schools.
- The employee must have an underlying health condition (not a family member) to qualify as a person with a disability, in order to receive reasonable accommodations under the ADA.
- When FCPS cannot accommodate the request because the employee is needed at the site to fulfill the essential functions of their position, FCPS assesses if there are other openings within FCPS for which the employee qualifies and can telework based on their health condition. If no such position is available, FCPS then offers the employee an unpaid Leave of Absence for the remainder of the school year in order to preserve their job during these challenging times.
- For employees who request non-ADA telework – the need to telework due to a family member’s health risk, child care concerns or personal preference, FCPS’s ability to honor these requests is limited based on the number of students returning for in-person instruction.
- For employees who are designated to return to work but choose not to, FCPS strives to offer an unpaid Leave of Absence option, subject to School Board approval.
- FCPS has communicated with principals, teachers, and more than 26,000 other FCPS staff members- as well as parents, guardians and the community- in a number of ways during school closures due to the ongoing pandemic. It has been an anxious time for so many. With health and safety at the forefront, detailed plans continue to be drafted as we consider how to return staff and students to our school buildings and centers.
On Sept. 22, Dr. Brabrand presented an FCPS Reopening of Schools plan to the School Board. FCPS officials passed the motion that would allow students who are struggling with virtual learning to begin in-person learning in October to get the help they need.
"Where possible, staff who have requested virtual instruction will be matched with students who have requested virtual learning. There is a possibility based on student need that you will be asked to return to in-person instruction by your principal," FCPS said in an email to staff.
FCFT said the School Board also approved a motion to delay staffing decisions about how they would handle staff with vulnerable family members, those with childcare needs, and those that are uncomfortable returning until they had an understanding of the number of staff members that would take an unpaid leave of absence or resign if asked to return in person. They said FCPS did not honor staff with these issues.
FCPS did however arrange with principals to provide temporary childcare assistance for staff who are returning for in-person instruction.
In accordance with state guidance on a reopening plan, FCPS will be able to provide in-person services under safety protocols for special education programs. This plan also includes "special cases where all parties agree it is appropriate," according to the FCPS reopening schools plan.
During this time, general instruction will continue to be virtual for other students. Sports and extracurricular activities will remain prohibited.