Ethical Educator

Working Remotely But Responsibly?
School Administrator, February 2022

Scenario: A suburban school district readily granted approval for teachers to work remotely during the pandemic if they stated they had "health or safety concerns" about in-person instruction. Those teaching in person wound up with a heavier load, especially when teaching hybrid with simultaneous online and in-person instruction. Meanwhile, district leaders learned some of the remote teachers posted photos on social media showing them in large groups, maskless, or traveling out of town, suggesting they don't have medical issues. What ought the district's administration do about this? 

Chris Nicastro:

The pandemic created a host of challenges and issues that were unprecedented. Administrators worked valiantly to meet the needs of students while respecting the needs of staff as well.  Allowing teachers with health or safety concerns to teach remotely was the only reasonable decision, given the circumstances. Considering the cautions of the CDC and other health experts, forcing them to come into work—especially if they have legitimate health issues—would have been risky. In this case, the district might have asked for some confirmation of a health issue from a physician, though this wouldn't cover those with safety concerns which would be difficult to question or verify.  

At a minimum, the district should talk with the remote teachers who posted information and inform them that their activities had been reported.  They need to know their actions—especially when they had the bad judgment to post them on social media—created ill feelings among their colleagues. Barring some future transgression, this would likely suffice. The justice administered by their peers ought to be punishment enough!

Louis Wool:

The heart of this dilemma is the fair and equitable treatment of all faculty members. The apparent abuse of policy designed to keep teachers safe during the pandemic is troubling provides a host of challenges, not the least of which is the potential undermining of the heroic behavior of most teachers during a worldwide pandemic. 

The district has an obligation to thoroughly investigate the conditions under which teachers who elected to work remotely met or failed to meet their professional responsibilities. The district should investigate all reasonable concerns; however, photographs posted on social media do not necessarily accurately depict teachers’ behavior. After completing a comprehensive investigation, the district must pursue disciplinary actions to hold teachers accountable for any misrepresentation of their circumstances for working from home or any shirking of professional responsibilities.

All the teachers who behaved ethically, whether working remotely or in person, will assess the district’s behavior to determine’ its commitment to fairness. I would engage the leadership of the teachers union and provide permissible information and information in the public domain. Union leadership can serve as invaluable partners to ensure all of its members are treated fairly and with the same expectations for meeting professional responsibilities. The superintendent should underscore to union leaders if these behaviors prove founded and go unaddressed; it will erode the credibility of all teachers among members of the community. The loss of credibility renders a gross disservice to those teachers who acted heroically and in good faith during a worldwide crisis.

The district’s most significant concern is the sloppiness of the language given to teachers as the framework for deciding whether to work on-site or remotely. It lacks specificity from CDC guidance about pre-existing medical conditions that make some more vulnerable. Instead, it uses the vague wording of “health or safety concerns,” easily misinterpreted. Additionally, the district does not ask for supporting documentation from a medical professional to indicate vulnerability or a rationale for working from home.

Despite its weak and vague language, if the district is to emerge with its integrity intact, it must find a way to reprimand those that abused the policy.  The district-established criteria are unlikely to support disciplinary action at a hearing. If the issue is to reach a resolution perceived as fair, it will require behind-the-scenes effort by union leaders who should as concerned about the integrity of fairness to all of its members. 

The district failed to develop clear criteria for teachers opting to teach from home during the pandemic; solving this problem will be determined by the quality of the relationship between district administration and union leaders. Every member of the organization and the community will be watching to see how the district addresses unethical behavior on the part of some teachers.

Sheldon Berman:

We don’t know the circumstances that may have resulted in some remote teachers being photographed in large groups, maskless, or traveling. It’s important not to jump to conclusions that they have misled administration about their health or safety concerns. For example, there may have been important family gatherings in which individuals removed their masks briefly for the purpose of memorializing the event or they may have traveled to assist relatives in need. 

In addition, it is difficult to comparatively measure the workload of virtual versus hybrid teachers. The work is different, but both roles have been critical throughout the pandemic. If there has been a shift in students’ virtual and in-person attendance that requires staffing be rebalanced, the district has the opportunity to bring virtual teachers back to in-person work, depending on the terms delineated for those teachers granted permission to teach remotely. 

The most critical question is whether each individual is meeting the expectations of the position and the needs of the district. If the answer is no, then the individual’s supervisor needs to intervene through the evaluation or personnel process. 

MaryEllen Elia:

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many school districts moved forward to accommodate requests for specific working conditions from teachers and staff without putting in place the systems to verify the requests. Later, as more information became available and situations changed due to state/health department mandates, districts had to wrestle with how to establish new rules and protocols to meet the requirements of the schools to have in person staff while allowing some flexibility.  

To address this situation, the administration should make all staff aware of the needs of the schools and establish clear rules for anyone seeking to have exemptions from in person teaching.  These should include specifics on why they need to have an exemption from an in person teaching assignment accompanied by a medical form signed by their physician verifying the need.  There should also be a statement to the effect that if actions/behaviors are reported that would lead to question of the veracity of their situation, that misrepresentation could lead to disciplinary action by the district.

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Sheldon Berman, AASA lead superintendent, Redmond, Ore.; MaryEllen Elia, senior fellow, International Center for Leadership in Education and retired superintendent; Chris Lee Nicastro, former Missouri commissioner of education and president, Lee Consulting Group, St. Louis, Mo.; and Louis N. Wool, superintendent, Harrison, N.Y.