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COVID cases forced Princeton High School online. Some teachers say the district failed them.

<p>Nurses provide health screening forms for students on the first day of Princeton High School’s hybrid model of school on Oct. 19.</p>
<h6>Courtesy of Elizabeth Collier</h6>

Nurses provide health screening forms for students on the first day of Princeton High School’s hybrid model of school on Oct. 19.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Collier

Just a week after Princeton High School (PHS) reopened for the first time since March, one student and two teachers tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the district to cancel in-person classes at the high school until Nov. 9.

This news came amid controversy over how Princeton Public Schools (PPS) has responded to staff safety concerns. Union representatives, staff members, students, and some administrators have opposed the district’s denial of most staff work-from-home requests, many of which were made due to personal or familial vulnerabilities to COVID-19.

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As of Oct. 26, PPS has approved 25 out of 93 work-from-home applications, and 22 of those staff members are taking advantage of the option. Five staff members have been granted special accommodations, such as face shields, but were working on site.

PPS reopened pre-school, kindergarten, and first grade programs on Oct. 5, the rest of its elementary schools on Oct. 12, and PHS on Oct. 19. Princeton Unified Middle School (PUMS) reopened on Oct. 26.

In a statement provided to The Daily Princetonian on Oct. 19, before the student and teachers received positive test results, PPS Interim Superintendent Dr. Barry Galasso said the district’s ability to reopen schools reflected the wide-ranging COVID-19 precautions it had undertaken.

“Our staff and our students have been following the safety protocols, and, at this point, our phased-in reopening has been very successful,” he said.

Following the positive tests, Galasso assured parents and staff that the district had prepared for the possibility of remote instruction.

“When we approved our phased-in return to hybrid learning, the district was aware that there could be instances when it would be necessary to pivot to all-remote learning if the number of teachers required to participate in quarantines increased dramatically, as it has in the last 24 hours,” he wrote in a public statement on Oct. 24.

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After the PHS student received a positive test on Friday, Galasso announced that the school would be fully remote for the following Monday and Tuesday. On Saturday, after learning that two PHS staff members had also tested positive, Galasso announced that PHS would remain remote until Nov. 9.

Princeton elementary schools and PUMS have not been affected.

According to Galasso, none of the cases originated at or were transmitted in PHS. He acknowledged the difficulties that the school’s physical closure would cause for many community members.

“I have heard from many parents who are happy to have had even a few days of in-person learning for their children and also from parents who are disappointed that their children have not yet been able to return to school,” he wrote. 

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“I understand that this is a hardship for all our students, their families, and our staff and that there are mental health and financial implications as well as many serious inconveniences. We are working hard to support staff, students and families while at the same time working to keep our school community healthy.”

Before the current three cases, one PPS student had already tested positive, and PHS suspended soccer practices and games for a week, after a player was exposed to COVID-19 at home.

Additionally, PPS announced on Oct. 24 that one staff member at Johnson Park Elementary School and their child, who attends Johnson Park, live in a household with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. As a precaution, one classroom of 22 students will be remote until Monday, Nov. 9. No student or teacher at Johnson Park has tested positive.

‘Not a lot of love now between teachers and the board’

PPS has adopted a hybrid learning model, in which students are split into three cohorts — one that is entirely remote and two that alternate attending school in person.

Originally, PPS denied the bulk of work-from-home requests, including those from teachers with increased risk for COVID-19 or whose family members have increased risk, arguing that neither state nor federal law covered their requests. On the advice of legal counsel, however, the district began accepting accommodation requests from teachers with underlying conditions.

Fifty-one PPS staff members have requested to work from home due to their own underlying condition, 34 due to a family member’s underlying condition, and three due to childcare needs; five have requested additional personal protective equipment, totaling 93 requests for accommodation.

Over the summer, PPS staff members submitted preliminary requests to work remotely. In August, PPS denied all requests received until that point, under the assumption that all staff would work remotely for the foreseeable future.

On Aug. 31, PPS informed staff it would deny all requests to work from home based on a family member’s illness, because such requests do not fall within the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

By early September, PPS had decided to reopen schools for hybrid learning. At that time, Michael Volpe, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, informed most staff members who had requested to work from home due to personal medical conditions that the district had denied their requests. PPS granted two of the 89 requests made by that time.

Once hybrid learning began, the district offered uncomfortable staff members unpaid leave.

The district argued that such decisions were necessary, as most parents wanted their children to attend school in-person.

“Granting your request would not allow us to operate our schools without putting an undue burden on the district,” Volpe wrote. “It is a decision that the district believes is in the best interest of children who are also going through this difficult time.”

In a letter to Volpe, Vittorio S. LaPira, whom the district retained as counsel, indicated that having to pay substitute teachers and teachers working fully online would constitute an “undue burden.”

According to the ADA, an employer incurs undue burden when accommodations require “significant difficulty or expense.”

Under New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s directive, public school districts are required to offer hybrid learning for families who want their children to attend in-person classes, so long as the school meets safety requirements.

In August, Murphy drew some criticism for abandoning that stance, as he allowed schools to teach entirely online.

Other New Jersey school districts are struggling to implement Murphy’s directive, as they contend with many work-from-home requests and seek to enforce safety protocols.

Renee Szporn, co-president of Princeton’s teachers’ union, Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA), said that while she understood the district could not grant all work-from-home requests, she felt administrators had shown disregard for their staff.

“As a parent, I understand where this is coming from. Parents have to work; they need the school building,” she said. “But you’re putting people’s lives at risk or endangering people’s loved ones, and I have a problem with that.”

Szporn, who lives with relatives at increased COVID-19 risk, requested accommodations to work from home. The district denied her request.

After the district initially rejected all but two requests, the board held 30 follow-up meetings with staff to talk through accommodations.

After PREA threatened to take legal action, the district granted work-from-home requests to staff members with doctors’ notes indicating they were immunocompromised. On Oct. 10, PPS Human Resources met with PREA leadership to approve 15 more work-from-home requests.

Jeffrey Lucker, a social studies and history teacher at PHS, applied to work from home and was initially rejected. After the district amended the policy to allow teachers to submit doctors’ notes, PPS approved his request.

Though allowed to teach remotely, Lucker opted for hybrid in-person instruction, for which he teaches outside in a tent.

Lucker said he understood the pressure the board faces, but hopes PPS grants more requests.

“I don’t envy any of them, and I’m sure a lot of them have to work with restrictions placed upon them by the state,” he said. “But, all that said, the consequences of decisions that are made are sometimes tragic … and I hope, for those colleagues of mine who have been denied accommodations and have had to make that choice of forfeiting their income and health insurance, that somehow it can be reversed.”

According to Szporn, PREA proposed that the district only hold in-person classes for students in special education, children of essential workers, and children whose parents faced exceptional childcare needs, so that a smaller number of teachers would be required to teach in-person. Szporn said that PREA also suggested one elementary school remain remote.

Justin Harmon ’78, a communications specialist working with PPS, said that such steps were not feasible, given Murphy’s mandate that districts make hybrid learning available to the general school population.

Harmon served as Director of Communications at the University for 12 years, leaving the position in 2000.

“In a district where almost two-thirds of the parents wanted in-person learning it’s very difficult not to open schools. What the district did do was to implement everything possible to keep employees safe,” he wrote.

The negotiations left teachers frustrated and scared, Szporn said.

“I think everybody feels demoralized,” she said. “And there’s certainly not a lot of love now between teachers and the board.”

PHS students respond

Students have also participated the controversy over in-person teaching. Three PHS students, Katherine Chang, Yash Roy, and Eli R. Edelman, wrote two letters to PPS community members, the second of which has garnered some 360 signatures from alumni, students, and parents.

The first, which Chang and Roy wrote after the district denied all work-from-home requests in September, encouraged students to opt for online learning until Princeton further contained COVID-19, so as to decrease the number of teachers needed in school.

Chang and Roy stressed they were not “attacking the Princeton Public School District,” but rather, “informing our fellow students of a decision made by the district, and urging them and their families to stay at home so that teachers can do the same.”

“There are many teachers who should not be going back into the building. Teachers who are immunocompromised or have a loved one that is immunocompromised, should not have to make a decision between their jobs and their lives,” they wrote.

The students acknowledged that some of their peers needed to return to PHS for physical or mental health or because of childcare needs.

Nonetheless, Chang argued, “a large portion of our student population has the means and is privileged enough to be able to stay home, but they’re not. And that is our responsibility as a student body.”

About two-thirds of PPS students elected hybrid learning.

“I personally thought that Princeton School District wasn’t a place where we just did the bare minimum, when it comes to what we have to do,” Edelman said. “We shouldn’t risk lives in favor of normalcy.”

Harmon contested the notion that PPS had sought to restore normalcy.

“None of this is ‘normal’ — all of the PPS protocols are based on health and safety. We have listened to extensive concerns from professionals about the mental health of our students who are learning from home, and in instances where it seemed possible to keep staff and students safe we have re-opened our school as part of state-wide requirements,” Harmon wrote.

“No decisions are made casually,” he added. “Each and every work-from-home decision was made based on what seemed best for staff, students and the community.”

Legal obligations and lingering concerns

Szporn said she believed the board had adopted a loose script when evaluating work-from-home requests and not given due attention to each one.

“I have to say that when we’d go to board meetings, I was very distressed to watch their faces because people would say the most horrific stories, and they just were not moved,” she said.

“Words don’t matter, actions do,” she added. “And their actions are not empathetic.”

Harmon disputed that characterization.

“Consistency is an important part of policy in any organization,” he wrote. “And while many PPS employees heard similar points about work-from-home from our HR department, there were a number of employees that had one-on-one conversations with the district that resulted in additional accommodations that met individual employee needs.”

In an Oct. 13 letter, LaPira, the lawyer retained by PPS, acknowledged that the Department of Education had urged school districts to “provide reasonable accommodations” for staff members at higher risk for COVID-19.

He argued, however, that “we must divide the list of high-risk categories into two groups: those at high risk because of age, alone and those at high risk due to a disability.”

Because the ADA does not offer protections on the basis of age, LaPira contended that the district is not obligated to meet work-from-home requests predicated on age.

In the same letter, LaPira cited guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which specifies that in cases where an employer may provide two possible accommodations, “the preference of the individual with a disability should be given primary consideration.” Nonetheless, “The employer providing the accommodation has the ultimate discretion to choose between effective accommodations.”

Separately, Harmon argued that the district’s hands were tied.

“Providing every staff member who requested it with a work-from-home option would mean that we would not meet our legal obligation to provide in-person school,” he wrote. “PPS needs appropriately certified staff to teach, as well as manage classrooms.”

Yet, many community members remain dissatisfied. A PPS teacher, speaking on the condition of anonymity, echoed Szporn’s frustrations.

After months of learning how to teach online, the teacher said they felt “undervalued” after the district told teachers they needed to return in-person or forgo a year’s salary.

“They’re always asking teachers to be creative and figure it out. And we have been really creative and adaptable,” they said. “And that the only two options were to come in, or take a leave, really lacked all creativity on their part, especially when they had all of July and all of August to try to figure this out.”

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