Do Georgia teachers worried about in-person learning during a pandemic have any recourse?

While many parents, students, and school leaders applaud it, thousands of Georgia teachers are fretting the prospects—or realities—of face-to-face learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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PHOTOGRAPH BY Elijah Nouvelage/GETTY IMAGES

With additional reporting by Michele Cohen Marill.

Though school district officials had instructed him not to speak with the media, a Paulding County High School teacher recently felt compelled to explain what the first weeks of face-to-face classes had been like. Unlike North Paulding High School about 15 miles away—the one that attracted national headlines and scorn from Dr. Anthony Fauci when videos of its crowded hallways and unmasked students drew internet infamy, prior to its temporary closure and dozens of positive COVID-19 tests—the Dallas school had weathered the initial days of the semester in relative calm. Unless, as the teacher passionately explains, you had to actually stand before a classroom full of teenagers.

The teacher’s voice rises and quakes in describing how much he’s concerned for teachers and students—and all of their extended families. With the absence of powerful unions in Georgia, he says a walk-out or strike isn’t an option, especially when so many colleagues feel that concerned teachers are just “being very silly.”

“I mean, here’s the thing: I love my job. I love going in and working with those students,” the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, tells Atlanta magazine. He wears a protective mask in class but says many teachers choose not to because there is no mandate. “I know that not everything is being done that needs to be to keep these kids safe. To me, when the guidelines for the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] are no big gatherings indoors, having 30 students in a classroom just flies in the face of that, right off the bat. Things are looking okay so far, at least at my high school, but it just doesn’t seem like it can hold. It just feels like there’s a hammer waiting to drop.”

In his worries about ongoing face-to-face learning—or the prospects of it being required later this school year—the teacher is hardly alone in cities and rural communities across Georgia. As is common in the South, collective-bargaining for public employees—the teeth of unions—is not allowed, following a state Supreme Court ruling years ago that teachers can have only a “memorandum of understanding” at best. It’s a right-to-work state, where laws prohibit union security for teachers, as with other occupations.

Options for recourse in Georgia do exist, however, but those hinge on individual predicaments, and observers say the dilemma some teachers are facing could ultimately impact the quality of education at some schools. It’s a tough situation, educators say, when parents are well within their rights to demand kids are properly educated—and those teaching them fear that pushing back too much could cost them their jobs and health coverage.

The legal team at Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a leading advocacy group that counts nearly 100,000 paying members, has been fielding an unprecedented number of calls from worried teachers in recent weeks—about 100 member calls per day. That’s a 98 percent increase in inquiries over the same time period last summer.

PAGE executive director Craig Harper says the agency has heard from some educators worried they’ll be forbidden from teaching pupils in person, but the vast majority have shared “deep concerns” from the other side of the fence. In general, Georgia districts in metropolitan areas, such as Atlanta Public Schools and Fulton, DeKalb, and Cobb counties, are opting for virtual-only learning. With some exceptions, the farther a school is from cities, the more likely it’ll be using a hybrid model or face-to-face learning, though data from state agencies tracking opening plans are lagging, Harper says. The most common worries among educators, per Harper, involve: inadequate safety procedures (including PPE and sanitizing measures); quarantine procedures for anyone exposed to the novel coronavirus (and how that would impact accrued sick leave); the plight of special needs students or those with limited internet access; COVID-19-related contract obligations; and a lack of “district-provided accommodations for educators who have a documented, qualifying high-risk medical condition” or live with family members who are high-risk.

One local educator whose situation checks the latter two boxes is Jack Butler, an eighth-grade ESL teacher at Cobb County’s Garrett Middle School. He takes medication for a preexisting condition that makes him immunocompromised. This past summer, as he worried that his district would require a physical return to classes, he investigated all his options for avoiding that: counting up his sick days, contacting a Buckhead attorney’s office, even reaching out to a former colleague about possible jobs in Douglas County’s all-virtual district next door. (Cobb schools opened in a virtual format August 17, but Butler says teachers were informed schools could reopen later, beginning with elementary classes.)

“I just can’t handle the idea that I can’t tell a 14-year-old to put a mask on. I cannot tolerate that,” says Butler. “If there’s a dress code [making] the masks mandatory, I would go into the building.”

In a letter recently distributed to educators, Richard Woods, Georgia’s State School Superintendent, stressed that local superintendents and boards of education have the authority, via dress codes, to require masks or other face-coverings in schools, though he acknowledged the issue has become politicized. Woods noted the vast majority of the state’s districts are opting for a hybrid model of in-person and online learning, trying to “navigate a landscape none of us have ever encountered or experienced.” A PAGE spokesperson says districts’ approaches to masks have been scattershot, with some changing their plans multiple times per day. At least one metro county that’s hasn’t opted for virtual learning, Hall, is requiring all teachers and students to wear masks. Forsyth County next door, meanwhile, is strongly encouraging face-coverings.

So what can a teacher who’s reached wit’s end in this uncharted landscape do for help?

Anita Bala, an attorney with Atlanta’s Buckley Beal and veteran of school law in several local districts, recommends that educators with specific concerns exhaust all communication with their individual schools before taking legal action. Teachers who resign during the school year and break contracts could be subject to disciplinary actions by the Professional Standards Commission, the state’s certifying agency for teachers, such as a yearlong suspension of their certificate to teach in Georgia. But during the pandemic, it remains to be seen if school districts are going to report teachers who do so, given the proven health risks, Bala says. Agencies like PAGE and the Georgia Association of Educators might lack the collective-bargaining power of unions, but Bala says they “do have some pull with the school districts” and that organizing with other teachers is generally advisable.

PAGE’s Harper notes that both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) contain job protections for educators who qualify during COVID-19. [The agency’s pandemic FAQ webpage is a great resource for more details.] PAGE attorneys are available for one-on-one counsel with members anxious about high-risk conditions or other situations, Harper says. The first step usually involves acquiring letters from healthcare providers documenting medical conditions, related safety concerns, and what action—either an accommodation or a leave—is advisable.

Bala, the attorney, has yet to hear of many teachers breaching contracts and quitting, though older educators are taking retirement sooner than planned in fear of the virus. That was the case with Bala’s daughter’s second-grade teacher in DeKalb County, who suddenly retired two days before school started—replaced, to Bala’s relief, with a regular substitute and experienced co-teacher.

“If they retire, of course there’s no repercussion,” says Bala. “But I think there may be a disproportionate number of more experienced teachers closer to retirement that districts are going to lose because of the concerns.”

Kathy Kelly-George, a music teacher on leave from a private school, started a private Facebook group called Teachers Against Opening School During a Pandemic to give fellow teachers an outlet to vent. So far, it has 4,280 members. Most of them are from Georgia, but some have joined from other states, including Alaska and California—and even as far away as New Zealand. Teachers want policies to be based on the science of transmission and public health, she says. And while teachers also yearn for normalcy and in-person instruction, they don’t want to risk their lives or bring the virus home to vulnerable family members, she says. “A thousand people a day are dying [nationally]. What part of the news aren’t you watching?” she says in response to people who demand schools open with in-person classes. “It’s Russian roulette with the teachers.”

Miranda Wicker, a former English teacher, has become a spokesperson for a different Facebook group called Teachers for Common Sense Safety. They are focused on mask requirements and other protocols that would protect teachers. (One in four teachers in Georgia are 50 or older, and older age is a risk factor for severe illness from COVID.)

Writing cheerful notes on the sidewalk outside the school and lauding teachers as “heroes” is well-meaning, but it won’t keep them safe, says Wicker. “If you want to show teachers you appreciate them, listen to them,” she says. “Hear what they’re saying. Many of them feel scared every day when they walk into the classroom that they’re going to catch coronavirus and bring it home to their loved ones.”

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