Broward schools accused of ‘spying’ on teachers — catching them out and about despite COVID fears

South Florida Sun Sentinel | by Scott Travis | January 26, 2021

The Broward School District has scoured Facebook pages of teachers working remotely to catch them partying, traveling and failing to wear masks at a time the educators say COVID-19 makes it too risky for them to return to campus.

One teacher is pictured at her daughter’s destination wedding in Jamaica. Another attended a political rally for Joe Biden. Others were pictured with cocktails in restaurants or enjoying a Disney or beach vacation with family or friends.

The district used about 40 pages of research about remote teachers during an arbitration hearing last week with the Broward Teachers Union, which challenged the district’s decision to end remote work assignments for most teachers.

“If individuals on remote assignment can go to a Biden rally or to Animal Kingdom or to a luncheon, they can safely return to in-person teaching,” Stephanie Marchman, a lawyer representing Broward Schools, said during a hearing Friday.

The effort amounts to “spying” on its employees, according to the Broward Teachers Union, which argued that the information is irrelevant since there were no conditions for what teachers could do while working remotely. Union lawyer Mark Richard also said the employees are doing activities encouraged by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a proponent of keeping businesses open.

“You’re saying if you do something that puts you at risk, you should be at risk at all times,” Richard said during the hearing. “This is a sad day for the Broward County school system. Once you’ve gone to a Biden rally and didn’t practice social distancing, you might as well come to school, increase exposure and die.”

The arbitration hearing, held Thursday through Saturday on Zoom, was closed to the public by order of the school district. A South Florida Sun Sentinel reporter was kicked out twice, on Thursday and Saturday. The arbitrator ruled the district can order teachers back, but must turn over information to the union about how decisions are made.

The union complaint had argued the district unfairly ended most of the 1,700 remote work assignments granted last fall.An agreement in September said the district would strive to grant the most remote work accommodations possible, with priority given to teachers with health issues that made them more at risk should they contract COVID-19. These include cancer, heart disease, Type 1 diabetes, kidney disease and obesity.

One social media post showed James Keith Calloway, 58, a teacher coach who had been working remotely, posed in a holiday photo close to others and without a mask. But Calloway told the Sun Sentinel the photo was taken in December 2019, before the pandemic. His brother posted it this past holiday season, leading to confusion. Calloway also said he’s not a member of the Broward Teachers Union, which filed the complaint.

“I just find it hard to believe [the district] would go to this extent. I really do,” he said.

Marchman questioned whether Calloway doesn’t want to return to school because he no longer lives in the area. She presented property tax records showing he bought a home in Groveland, about three hours from Broward County, in October and declared that his primary residence by receiving a homestead exemption. Calloway said he still has a rental property in Broward but has filed his paperwork to retire from the district. He said it’s due to his health, not his residency.

The district also questioned photos of elementary teacher Tracy Merlin, who attended an outdoor rally for Biden on Oct. 29. She is wearing a mask in all photos.

“When I take a personal day, you know it’s for a good reason,” she wrote on the Facebook post.

Merlin couldn’t be reached for comment, despite attempts by phone and through Twitter. She attended a recent public meeting on Zoom designed to rally support for teachers working remotely. She warned teachers to be aware of the optics of any efforts to organize.

“If people are asking for social distancing or asking to be working from home, I caution us as a profession not to be hypocritical,” she said. “Keep that in mind as you organize the things to demonstrate our frustration.”

District lawyers also questioned Kelly Sanfilippo, a middle school science teacher who served as a witness for the union. She had been working remotely due to pregnancy. She testified she hasn’t traveled and does only curbside pickup.

The lawyers asked her about a Facebook photo showing her holding her young daughter at the zoo.

“That’s a local zoo. Its an outdoor zoo and there’s social distancing, which is the only reason I went,” Sanfilippo told the lawyers.

The constant use of social media photos angered Richard, the union lawyer.

“They’re going onto Facebook and spying or whatever on teachers,” he said during the hearing. “They’re making some insane assertion about a picture of a 2-year-old in a park. Doctors say it’s good to be outside as long as you keep social distancing. What is the relevance of this?”

Photo: In a photo posted to her Facebook, Tracy Merlin, a Broward County elementary teacher, is seen at a rally for Joe Biden. Merlin has been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic due to health issues. (Facebook page of Tracy Merlin)

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