It is not surprising and is in fact to be expected that the path to fully reopening schools in Frederick County and elsewhere would have a few stumbling blocks along the way.
The school system is grappling with a difficult and evolving situation. After the Frederick County Board of Education voted last week to expand the hybrid learning model at the elementary level to four days a week for the final weeks of the school year, some logistical problems started cropping up almost immediately.
Then came the official complaints this week from the system’s employees. All three bargaining units contend that the school board has bypassed the Memorandum of Understanding that was just signed two months ago.
We’ll get through all this, but it is just going to take a little time and patience, and a bit of awareness on all sides. It is the messy process of emerging from a year of pandemic, with all the attendant fears and frustrations.
The school board passed two motions last week: the first to reduce social distancing at the elementary level from 6 feet to 3 feet, and the second to expand the hybrid model to four days a week at elementary schools starting in May.
The first action follows new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The school system has been trying to hew closely to CDC guidelines.
The second follows from an urgency to get children back into classrooms as soon as possible, even in the waning days of the school year. Evidence is growing that many children have lost ground educationally during the long school shutdown and shift to distance learning. It was all necessary for the safety of teachers, staff and children, but it was a gigantic disruption.
The problem is that both changes are covered by the MOU that was finalized in February between the school system and its three employee bargaining units. So, all three filed a class-action grievance against the Board of Education for violating the agreement.
For example, the MOU states that social distance of 6 feet between students and employees must be maintained, which was the CDC guideline until last month.
Missy Dirks, president of the teachers’ union, told News-Post reporter Katryna Perera that the group is not necessarily opposed to the board’s decisions. It is against the board acting unilaterally, in violation of the agreement.
“This isn’t about having more students in the building, it isn’t about having students in the building for four days, because we have helped facilitate that, that has been happening. We’ve expanded more students in the building at every [academic] quarter,” Dirks said. “The Board of Education never asked us to come back to the bargaining table and discuss changing the MOU.”
Amy Schwiegerath, president of the Administrative and Supervisory Association that represents administrators in collective bargaining, agreed.
“We absolutely want kids back four days a week, but violating the MOU and not giving us the opportunity to properly prepare is frustrating to administrators,” she told our reporter.
A violation of the memorandum is important, even if the underlying issue is not really contentious. This grievance may have been the shot across the bow of the board.
The unions may have felt that if they did not file a grievance, the board might make further unilateral changes to the MOU in the future. If the union did not object to the first breach, it could not object to future changes.
We understand the impatience of the board to get moving, but the MOU exists for a reason: to have the employees consulted for their advice and their consent. It is the best way to get the schools back on track and get our kids back to learning.
The board should concede it was an error to make its move without discussing the change—and go back to the table with the unions. Going through a grievance hearing is just taking up time. Meeting to hash out the best way to make the changes is the better option.