A new agreement between Frederick County Public Schools, the Frederick County Teachers Association (FCTA), and the Frederick County Board of Education will guarantee teachers work a set number of hours and receive needed technology and personal protective equipment (PPE) while the school system continues to operate in a virtual mode with some in-person learning.
The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was unanimously approved by the board at their latest meeting.
MOU's are not uncommon, said Missy Dirks, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association, and are often used as a supplement to the negotiated contract.
Due to the ever-changing nature of the pandemic, Dirks said it was necessary to enter an MOU given that teachers are dealing with new working conditions and expectations.
"The main reason we do an MOU is so that everybody is on the same page and everybody has the same expectations," Dirks said. "It also gives clarity to principals because then they know what has been determined or decided...and it doesn't become a game of telephone, particularly when everybody is working from different locations."
Jennifer Reynolds, an English teacher at Brunswick High School and a member of the teachers union, said the current semester has been tough. It's hard to establish relationships with new students through a screen, she said, and she often ends up working longer hours than she did while at school.
She is supportive of the MOU. It prevents teachers from being overworked and allows them to have a voice.
"When [FCPS] works with FCTA, they have teachers predicting issues that other people in the school system who aren't in the classroom all the time might not even think of," she said.
The teachers union is the largest employee bargaining unit of the school system, and represents about 4,400 teachers and other staff including school counselors and speech pathologists. FCPS employees may choose to be a member of FCTA, but negotiated terms cover all certified employees regardless of whether they are an official member.
In addition to set working hours and resources, the current MOU guarantees teachers additional planning time and paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) in case the employee or an employee's family member gets COVID-19.
Additionally, it dictates that reporting to the school building while FCPS continues to operate in a virtual mode will be voluntary and that teachers must be notified that they have to physically return to work at least two weeks prior to students returning to the building.
Dirks said one of the most important aspects of the current MOU is the guarantee that the school system will provide teachers with needed technology.
"If you expect teachers to be teaching remotely, whether they choose to go into the classroom and teach their students virtually or from home, they're going to need a device that has a webcam, and not everyone had one when we started in August," Dirks said.
And when teachers have the things they need to work efficiently, like technology, it helps students as well.
"Our teaching conditions are our students' learning conditions, they cannot be separated. If a teacher does not have what they need to instruct students, then the students won't get what they need for their education," Dirks said.
Board member Lois Jarman, a former FCPS teacher, agreed.
"I think that when teachers are comfortable and less stressed, we generally do better, and so I think that happy teachers make for happy students," she said.
Dirks also said the agreement dictates FCPS must provide every student with the necessary technology and resources—a critical component for a county that continues to rank at the bottom in terms of per-pupil spending across the state.
As far as returning to the classroom, Dirks said she feels teachers would feel more comfortable coming back if they were assured that working conditions were going to be safe. There are still many questions to be worked out before expanding any in-person learning, and Dirks said she and many FCTA members feel it would be beneficial to take the time to work through these logistics instead of rushing into anything.
Reynolds said she is nervous about moving to a hybrid model and would rather wait and make sure all safety measures are in place.
"One of the things I worry most about is spending a lot of time trying to get people to wear masks. I mean we've struggled for years now trying to get the phones put away and kids will just sneak them back out. The masks are going to be as much of a battle, but in a worse way, because everybody's health is at risk," she said.
With the current agreement lasting until the school system transitions out of the current virtual mode, it is unclear when the next agreement will come to fruition, but Dirks made the point that regardless of the timing, it will not hinder FCPS students receiving their education.
"Our negotiations of the [current] MOU did not hold up any of the virtual learning," Dirks said. "We want to make sure that everything is safe for our educators and our students and...no part of this is about us being obstructionists and not wanting to do our jobs. We absolutely are still working as hard as ever."