With distance learning possibly extending into fall, teacher contracts settled or being negotiated prior to school closures due to the coronavirus are now being reexamined. Talks have been structured differently based on the speed of the outbreak and holes in previous contracts, and some changes could last post-pandemic.  

“When the crisis hit, none of these districts had provisions in their existing collective bargaining agreements that could handle the crisis,” said Nicole Gerber, director of strategic communications for the National Council on Teacher Quality. The think tank keeps a running​ database of collective bargaining agreements and board policies across 147 sample districts, and it has so far analyzed the COVID-19 responses of 58. “What was in there was intended for weather-related closures.” 

“Districts had to come quickly to a solution about how to still deliver what they’re required to deliver,” said Bradley Marianno, an urban policy researcher and assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The rapid pace with which [solutions] were made put a whole new structure on what negotiations would look like.”

Waves of agreements

Some districts were renegotiating already-signed agreements with their unions only after weeks of closures. In other places, districts that began bargaining earlier into the closures have since released multiple rounds of memorandums of understanding or letters of understanding as extended closures surface previously unaddressed issues, like changed working conditions and teacher evaluations. 

New York City’s Department of Education, for example, rebargained with the United Federation of Teachers​ shortly after schools closed to add sick day provisions that would allow religious observation during spring break —​ through which teachers were required to work —​ without the loss of personal days. UFT Deputy Press Secretary Alison Gendar said it was a “first step,” and that “other contract issues are yet to be negotiated,” like how evaluations would be conducted in a remote environment. 

“The issues are coming in waves,” Gerber said. “And the next wave that we’re seeing is the teacher evaluation issue.”

As negotiations continue to evolve, districts are addressing online evaluations along with other related issues like pay raises and the number of instructional hours teachers are expected to work remotely. 

Terms: evaluations, raises, layoffs

With student assessments canceled across the nation, districts are left to negotiate bonuses, performance pay or stipends. In Florida, where standardized testing is factored into teacher evaluations and bonuses, different approaches are beginning to emerge. 

Hillsborough County Public Schools, for example, included in its MOU that it will use teacher evaluation ratings from 2018-19 to determine performance pay. Employees hired after that year will automatically be rated effective, unless there is evidence of consistently poor performance. And those rated less than effective in 2018-19 will have a chance to apply for reconsideration for the 2019-20 school year. 

That’s in stark contrast to Pinellas County Public Schools, which agreed to no evaluations or differentiated salary adjustments for its teachers this school year.

In Chicago Public Schools, previous years’ teacher evaluations will also be used for the purpose of determining layoffs, but new employees will be deemed proficient off the bat. Raises in the district are based on “step and lane” salary schedules.

Seattle Public Schools, among the first to navigate school closures and union agreements, will consider “proficient” or “distinguished” teachers from prior school years as also meeting those standards for 2019-20. But teachers who performed below those standards will be evaluated in 2020-21 if remote evaluation efforts fail this year. 

Rather than no evaluations for the year, SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson said, “Outstanding performance should be recognized, opportunities for continuous professional development should be provided to all staff members, and resources should be effectively allocated to provide support for performance improvement.” 

Accentuating good and tense relationships

But where some districts and unions are crafting formal agreements, others are working closely to align their informal guidance with no written agreement yet in place. New York City Department of Education, for example, continues to work closely and negotiate with UFT. 

As of late April, Chicago Public Schools was working closely with its union but didn’t have a formal agreement in place, either. 

Collaboration on this level is unprecedented, some say. 

“Unions are not known for being nimble and flexible,” Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency​ and a specialist in public education and labor issues, wrote in an analysis. “So it is all the more remarkable that they are mostly resisting the impulse to resist.” 

But Marianno said the close collaboration does not surprise him because “​unions have always wanted to have a say in anything that impacts their members.” 

That is not the case across the board, however. Where district-union tensions were already high prior to the pandemic, the problem only seems to be exacerbated, Gerber pointed out. 

That’s the case in Orange County Public Schools, in Florida, where the president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, Wendy Doromal, said her teachers “always have a difficult time” bargaining and, as a result, have taken the district to court numerous times in the past. 

In a recent class action grievance, the association claimed OCPS violated its original contract, which had terms in place in case of an infectious disease outbreak, when it released COVID-19 attendance procedures on March 27 without first consulting the association. 

Doromal said she’s ready to use similar methods where negotiations fail going forward, especially considering Florida’s recent efforts to reopen schools against health officials’ advice.

“Will I take them to court?” she said. “You bet.” 

‘A lot’ left to bargain, increasing tensions

A similar sentiment was echoed by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, both of which are ready to call for strikes if schools reopen haphazardly or prior to medical officials’ green light. 

Reopening plans and working conditions, especially as they relate to health and safety concerns, are also among the top OCPS issues Doromal said are left to negotiate, noting, “We have a lot that we have to bargain.”

United Teachers Los Angeles also left that possibility open, saying in a press release an early start to the school year would have to be on its bargaining list before any decision is made by the district. 

While unions and districts are agreeing now, Marianno anticipates this collaboration could fizzle out in the coming months. “I think we may see more tension around MOU negotiations this summer than we’ve seen to date around COVID-19,” he said, adding unions will want to “have more of a say” in the choices districts make to continue learning. 

Doromal noted her union has seen a spike in membership sparked by the pandemic, and she expects those numbers to increase. That makes sense, Marianno said, because teachers tend to “flock to their unions” under uncertain working conditions. 

And terms discussed now will “absolutely” create a blueprint for future contracts and policies, Gerber said. She expects more agreements to include provisions for elongated school closures, especially considering a possible second wave of the virus in the fall. 

For example, though Dallas Independent School District doesn’t have collective bargaining, it updated its 2020 policy language around emergency district closures to reflect the possibility of dismissal for “longer periods of time” in the “case of unusual or emergency situations.” 

“Districts and unions do not want to experience the same kind of scramble again, and to be caught without policies that are clear on how they should be handling this,” Gerber said.

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