Teachers file remote working requests

Union seeks standardized statewide policy

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

The teachers’ choices are in. 

Just like parents and students, teachers in the Champlain Valley School District have chosen whether to start the school year remotely or in person. School district administrators now undertake the complex task of synthesizing student choices with teacher preferences to create workable class schedules for a Sept. 8 start. 

But unlike students, teacher choices whether to work remotely in response to the coronavirus pandemic are being treated as requests. Teachers were given a survey to complete by last Friday with three choices: teach fully remotely, partially remotely or fully in school. Students were given two choices, learn partially remotely or fully remotely, and their deadline to choose was this Wednesday.

Of the roughly 400 teachers in the Champlain Valley School District, 10 percent have requested working fully remotely, school district Human Resources Director Mark McDermott said.

“We can’t make any promises,” school district communication director Bonnie Birdsall said about the teachers’ choices. “We are not obligated to honor a request to work fully remotely.”

According to Williston Central School special educator Lisa Bisbee, the lead contract negotiator for the Champlain Valley School District teachers union, many teachers are consulting with doctors to document underlying health conditions in order to bolster work-from-home requests.

The Vermont teachers union seized on a statement Gov. Phil Scott made during a press conference last Friday that teachers are being given the choice whether to work remotely — just as state employees have been given that choice through the end of the year. 

The teachers union would like that to be true statewide, but is finding that each school district is setting its own policy on honoring remote work requests, union spokesman Darren Allen said.

“Some requests are being denied or not even being entertained,” said Allen. “A lot of people are scared, and not without reason.”

The union is pushing the Scott Administration for a statewide approach to reopening schools, with uniform safety guidelines and thresholds for when schools would have to return to fully remote learning in the case of a coronavirus outbreak, or return to fully in-person learning if case numbers flatten. 

“Teachers really want to be back in person,” Bisbee said. “We just want to make sure our educators are safe and the schools are doing what they need to do to make it safe.”

Champlain Valley School District administrators and teachers have been meeting weekly to come to terms on working conditions during the pandemic. Bisbee calls the relationship between teachers and the district “very respectful.”

She said teachers were given a short amount of time — one week — to make their decisions by last Friday. As a union leader, she advised teachers considering the work-from-home option — but who could not get to their doctors’ office to document underlying health conditions — to request working from home now, and possibly withdraw the request later. 

Bisbee also had a hard decision to make. She works with about 15 kids who have individualized education plans within the Swift House — a group of about 90 students and four classroom teachers. She chose to work a hybrid schedule, with part of each week teaching in the building and part teaching from home. The fact that she will be working some in-person shifts will mean visits with her elderly parents will be different than they have been: They will now wear masks and keep their distance.

Conventional wisdom says special education is more difficult to accomplish remotely. But Bisbee found last spring, when schools closed to blunt the spread of the virus, that some students with disabilities thrived in a remote setting, where they could learn in private and free from the distractions of other students. But she thinks it’s critical that she develop an in-person relationship with new students at the beginning of the school year.

“I love my job and the part I love is the in-person stuff,” she said. “It’s hard for me to consider going fully remote. I would miss the kids and my colleagues too much.”

Teachers return to work this school year under an extension of a two-year contract that expired in June. Talks on a new employment contract are expected to resume next week.

This will be the first contract that incorporates a statewide teachers health insurance provision. Health insurance has traditionally been negotiated locally between school boards and local teachers unions. 

Bisbee notes that the statewide health insurance plan will increase teachers share of premiums from 16 percent, with the district covering 84 percent, to 20 percent, with the district covering 80 percent. 

Making up for that 4 percent cost shift will be part of the negotiations, Bisbee said.