Teachers who have thus far been teaching 100% online must return to campus starting January 5 or take a leave of absence, Huntington Beach Union High School District leaders told distant teachers via email on Friday.
The decision to require teachers to teach in-person was made as the December 31 expiration date on relief from the Family First Coronavirus Response Act approaches.
The FFCRA, passed by Congress and signed into law in March, requires certain public employers to provide emergency paid medical and family leave for employees unable to work due to COVID-19-related reasons including personal or family health or childcare. HBUHSD cited the impending loss of flexibility provided by FFCRA as the reason for its change in policy toward virtual teaching.
The district’s decision addresses several concerns about in-person instruction that have arisen from the nature of its school reopening plan.
Since HBUHSD first unveiled and then modified its reopening plan in August, some teachers and parents have criticized its policy of enrolling students from both its hybrid (in-person) and virtual (fully-online) instructional programs into the same classes, rather than separating students into fully in-person classes and a fully-online virtual academy, as districts like Irvine Unified, Garden Grove and Fountain Valley have done.
After HBUHSD schools brought hybrid students back onto campus in November, frustration with the district’s mixed model continued. At its Nov. 13 meeting, the first since school sites reopened for in-person instruction, the HBUHSD Board of Trustees heard public comments from close to 15 parents who expressed frustration at various aspects of in-person instruction.
One parent said their child “languished” behind a screen, and several expressed concern that their children were being taught through Zoom by virtual teachers while a substitute supervised them in the classroom.
Multiple parents said that teachers should not be allowed to teach from home and that those with childcare or medical concerns should take leaves of absence rather than being paid to teach virtually.
Several said that using relief funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, a stimulus bill signed into law in March, to pay substitutes to supervise their children was inappropriate.
Other parents have taken their concerns to social media.
“School is seriously one of the safest places to be … Schools are being meticulous about [wearing masks and social distancing],” HBUHSD parent Shelly Cohen Dunlap wrote on Facebook. “The kids need to be back at school as well as the teachers in my opinion.”
The district’s decision to require teachers to return to campus would address those concerns. For many teachers who had elected to teach online, however, the news came as a surprise; their previous understanding was that they would be allowed to remain online until at least the end of the first semester in late January.
While the expanded leave guaranteed by the FFCRA until December 31 is prohibited from being “construed to in any way diminish the rights or benefits that an employee is entitled to under any existing employer policy,” teachers who choose to remain at home after January 5 under illness, emergency or personal leave must use their normal sick leave days (which are paid, but of which teachers receive a limited number each year) to do so.
Teachers can alternatively choose to stay home under the Family Medical Leave Act, which allows them to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave while retaining benefits.
Some have argued that the decision to bring teachers back to campus was the result of the district’s reopening plan, which they say forced the district to cover the unsustainable expense of hiring substitutes to supervise in-person instruction in the classrooms of fully-online teachers, and which they say lowered the quality of in-person instruction by enabling in-person students to be taught by at-home teachers.
At the November 13 Board of Trustees meeting, for example, HBUHSD District Educators Association president Shawne Hume said the DEA “objected strenuously” to the district’s plan to require both in-person and online teachers to teach to both in-person and online students.
After seeing the district’s reopening plan play out, some students expressed similar concerns. Fountain Valley High School senior Justin Nguyen said the hybrid model was “weird” and “did not engage [him] at all.”
“Students who attend hybrid literally just sit in the classroom and watch a Zoom lecture, making it no different from at home learning,” Nguyen said. “On the first day back, I was in the classroom alone with a sub… Aside from the slim chance to be able to see some of your teachers in person, hybrid learning as of now is just awkward and ineffective.”
Nguyen added that he believes “it’s unbelievably unfair to force all teachers to return to campuses,” especially with COVID-19 case counts rising in Orange County. Marina High School senior Pema Donnelly agreed.
“Personally, I feel like it’s ridiculous to request currently online teachers to return to campus at this point in time,” Donnelly said. “I have two teachers who are currently teaching from home due to delicate situations in which they do not want to endanger their at-risk family members. Forcing them to choose between the job that they love and the people that they love is just cruel if you ask me.”
Some students, like Marina High School senior Tracy Tran, like the district’s current mode of in-person instruction.
“For the mixed opening plan that combines both hybrid and online students in the same class, I have been pleasantly surprised,” Tran said. “When I was doing hybrid [before self-isolating after an out-of-state trip], I’d say it felt close to normal in the classes where teachers were present.”
Like Nguyen and Donnelly, however, Tran also disagreed with the district’s decision to call teachers back to campus.
“There are a lot of teachers who are currently staying home in order to keep their loved ones safe,” Tran said. “One of my teachers survived cancer, his wife has cancer, and his mom has cancer; so it’s insane for me to think that he would have to take a leave of absence … I understand it’s a very difficult situation because a lot of funds are running out, though, so I’m not entirely sure what a better alternative would be.”
The Baron Banner has contacted several virtual and hybrid teachers, as well as representatives of HBUHSD DEA, for comments. This article will be updated on baronnews.com to include them when they are received.
Karen Phan and Arden Nguyen contributed to this story.