D.C. Public Schools has started putting down stickers prompting kids to keep their distance from each other, as seen at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Columbia Heights.
A panel that mediates labor disputes in the District found that D.C. Public Schools violated city law by failing to collectively bargain with the Washington Teachers' Union over plans for reopening schools. The preliminary ruling could deal a blow to the school system's plans to reopen some elementary schools just weeks before thousands of students are scheduled to return to campuses.
The ruling, issued Tuesday by the Public Employee Relations Board, mandates that DCPS rescind a form and survey it sent teachers asking if they wanted to continue teaching online-only or return to physical classrooms. The school system used responses on the forms and surveys to help determine staffing as schools reopen.
The order can be appealed by DCPS. But the Washington Teachers' Union believes it means the school system cannot use the survey responses to determine staffing for schools on Nov. 9, when up to 21,000 students are scheduled to start returning to campuses for in-person learning.
"Teachers understand and sympathize with those who want to return to our classrooms. Distance instruction cannot replace the experiences that our students get in a classroom," Washington Teachers' Union President Elizabeth Davis said in a statement. "However, we can only return to our classrooms when it's safe."
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee confirmed Wednesday on WAMU's "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" the school system will retract the form and survey it sent teachers. But he said the school system is committed to bringing some students back in November, as scheduled.
Ferebee said the school system has negotiated with the union since the summer about plans to return to in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic.
"Ultimately, the ruling does encourage the Washington Teachers' Union to reach an agreement on reopening," he said. "It's important that we get our students and staff back in the school by ensuring there are robust health and safety protocols."
In an email to staff members, Ferebee said the school system is evaluating what the "order means for our overall reopening plans and will follow up as soon as possible with next steps."
The school system said it needs up to 3,000 staff members, including 600 teachers, to return to school buildings in November. About 7,000 students will receive live, in-person instruction from a teacher. Another 14,000 students will continue taking virtual classes from inside a school building, where they will receive help from an instructional aide or another staff member.
D.C teachers were asked to fill out a form in June indicating their plans for the 2020-2021 school year and could choose between two options: return to in-person teaching, or take a leave of absence because they are at high risk of contracting the coronavirus, or live with someone who is.
In its July complaint to the Public Employee Relations Board, the union accused the school system of imposing "a plan ordering bargaining unit members back to work during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic" without sufficiently notifying or negotiating with the union. D.C. law requires city employers to negotiate in "good faith" with labor unions over wages and working conditions.
The board ruled there is "reasonable cause to believe" the city school system engaged in unfair labor practices, ordering D.C. Public Schools to rescind that form and a Sept. 29 survey that asked teachers to indicate if they preferred to continue teaching virtually or return to physical classrooms.
It also gave DCPS five days to "commence bargaining over health and safety conditions" about the reopening of schools.