Some principals let lots of teachers work from home. Others don’t let any.

Many principals being intentionally obstinate, union says

Palm Beach Post | by Andrew Marra | October 20, 2020

It’s been a month of mostly good news for Royal Palm Beach High School teachers who asked to work from home this fall. Of the 27 eligible educators with health complications, 19 have been approved to teach classes remotely.

But at Park Vista High 14 miles away, teachers have not been so lucky. Of the 36 who were eligible, not one has received remote-work privileges from their principal, district records show.

More and more teachers are obtaining permission to work remotely as Palm Beach County public schools enter their fifth week of in-person classes. By the middle of last week, 488 campus teachers — 25 percent of those eligible — were teaching from home to reduce their exposure to the coronavirus.

But the district’s efforts to extend the benefit to more teachers with health complications have been hampered by dozens of principals who refuse to approve any remote-work requests, an analysis of remote-work approvals shows.

More than a third of the district’s principals have declined to approve a single request, including several who have received more than two dozen from eligible teachers, according to district records.

The refusal to do so has led to accusations from the teachers union and some school board members that many principals are being intentionally obstinate, rejecting requests that would protect teachers whose health problems put them at higher risk from COVID-19.

“Schools refusing teachers remote work where it is feasible is shameful,” said Justin Katz, president of the county teachers union. “Principals basically seem to have license to make zero effort which is in direct conflict with the school board’s directives and harsh demands.”

More than 480 campus-based teachers had won permission to work from home in Palm Beach County’s public schools as of Oct. 13. 

Some principals and administrators dispute that. They say it’s difficult to promise remote-work privileges when the number of students showing up on campus can change and more students are returning to campus each week.

Some principals also said the district’s records do not reflect all the remote positions they had approved. James Thomas, principal of L. C. Swain Middle, said the district recorded no approvals on his campus, but he had approved nine.

Gonzalo La Cava, the district’s human resources director, said the district’s records would not reflect remote-work approvals that principals neglected to report in the district’s personnel system.

At Limestone Creek Elementary in Jupiter, more than 75 percent of students have returned in person, making it difficult to arrange remote-work opportunities, the principal said.

“We want to support teachers, but when you say all students can come back and so many do, it’s difficult,” said Limestone Creek Principal Maria Lloyd, who district records showed had denied six requests. “My decision was based solely on the numbers.”

But principals have also rejected dozens of requests on campuses where few students have returned for in-person classes.

At West Boca Raton High, for example, just 17 percent of students were attending classes in person as of two weeks ago. Still, the school denied all its teaching staff’s 39 remote-work petitions, records show.

After this article was published online, Capitano followed up to say he had approved remote-learning requests for multiple teachers on his campus but may have failed to alert district administrators that he had done so, meaning those teachers would not be reflected in official district figures.

Principal Edmund Capitano initially declined to comment for this article but, after it was published online, said that the district’s records did not reflect multiple remote-work positions he had approved. He said he may have neglected to report them to the district.

“I can tell you that I do have teachers working remotely,” he said.

Privately, many principals have complained about having to choose between accommodating teachers concerned about their health and students on who need a teacher in their classroom.

To take pressure off them, some board members asked Superintendent Donald Fennoy to have district administrators make the final call. Board Chairman Frank Barbieri has repeatedly criticized Fennoy for declining to do so.

“I feel bad for our principals,” Barbieri said at an Oct. 7 board meeting. “This board made it very clear that principals were not to be put in a position to have to make decisions on who gets distance [teaching] and who didn’t.”

Fennoy responded that principals knew best the needs on their campuses and needed to make those decisions themselves.

“That is the decision that the principals must own, is what’s available in their campuses,” Fennoy said.

Anna DeOliveira teaches second-graders math at Heritage Elementary School in Greenacres on Sept. 4.

Anna DeOliveira teaches second-graders math at Heritage Elementary School in Greenacres on Sep. 4. Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post

Deputy Schools Superintendent Keith Oswald said many principals’ hesitancy is driven by uncertainty about the needs on campus.

Though many campuses sit mostly empty, students are expected to gradually start returning, making many principals reluctant to commit to remote-work assignments.

“They didn’t know what their situation would be week to week,” Oswald said.

Campuses that do accommodate the requests are doing so in different ways.

In many cases, Oswald said, schools are grouping all of a school’s in-person students into one teacher’s class, then letting others who teach the same subject or grade level handle the virtual students in separate, online-only classes.

In high schools, some teachers are teaching entire classes from home, including students on campus. Students who would normally be in a classroom instead log onto the virtual class from an “overflow room” such as a school cafeteria or auditorium.

The vast majority of schools have not approved all of their requests, but three schools have, including Palm Springs Middle, which granted all 14 of the requests as of last week.

John I. Leonard High, the county’s most populous school, has granted more than any other campus with 24, though its approvals total less than half the number submitted.

Parents have been asked to lock in their choice between online and in-person classes for the second grading period beginning next month.

Doing so will stabilize schools’ rosters, which administrators and teachers say they hope will allow principals to allow more remote-work assignments.

“We do expect more will be created,” Katz said. “Hopefully the district delivers.”

Palm Beach Post staff writer Sonja Isger contributed to this story.

Featured Image: Third grade teacher Jennifer Frazier in her classroom the newly rebuilt Verde K-8 School in Boca Raton, Florida on September 16, 2020. Greg Lovett, The Palm Beach Post

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