After Change in COVID-19 Safety Plan, LPS Teachers and Union Process Frustration, Burnout

Oct. 29, 2020, 5:44 p.m. ·

Lincoln Public Schools is using a "four pillar" approach to COVID-19 safety in schools this year.

It’s been an eventful week in the Lincoln Public School District: officials announced the district’s first possible instances of COVID-19 spread in two schools, and a spike in cases cancelled early childhood education classes at Elliott Elementary.

But some LPS teachers say they’re still processing the district’s decision to change the language of its online COVID-19 plan last week, which no longer says classes will automatically go remote if Lincoln’s risk level increased to “red” — the highest level. A district communications representative later said the change was first announced at a school board meeting in late September. Some teachers responded with calls for a “sick-out” early this week, a move the Lincoln Education Association union swiftly condemned.

Now teachers say they’re bracing for a long winter with fewer safety nets than they anticipated while union leaders continue to push forward on lessening staff workload.

One LPS teacher, who asked us not to use her name for fear of retribution, says the combination of remote and in-person learning is fueling burnout among staff. Now, on top of that, she says teachers aren’t being promised an emergency break as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising.

“People have always been kind of falling back on this idea of, like, ‘If it really does get too bad, I won't be in this high risk situation,’” she explained. She said she and other teachers feel their concerns around curriculum and safety aren't being properly addressed by the Lincoln Education Association or the district.

“And to have that taken away, for people who are really at higher risk and have very legitimate and valid concerns, I think that was a tipping point.”

LEA issued a statement opposing the district’s decision to change its automatic closure policy.

According to a press release from the Lincoln Education Association, messages circulated online last weekend suggesting teachers use their sick time to protest the change in policy: “We are calling for a mental health day on Monday, October 26th. Please use your sick leave to call in and take a day for your own well-being (no grading, no email, no school),” it read.

“Please also help the district more fully understand the decisions being made without our input by passing this message along to 5 other trusted colleagues. You cannot be fired for using your sick time, and rates of teachers out of building cannot withhold anyone from accessing sick leave.”

By Sunday evening, LEA issued a rebuke of the idea with a resolution: “The LEA is an association of professional educators and will never advocate for, support, or encourage action that could harm our members, our colleagues or our students,” leadership wrote.

“LEA will not condone any work stoppage, ‘sickout,’ walkout, or work slowdown as a means of activism. These actions are not permissible under state law and would not have the support of others in our community who are also struggling during this pandemic.”

In Nebraska, organizing government service workers to strike is a Class I misdemeanor, punishable up to one year in jail or a fine up to $1,000, or both.

Another teacher, who also asked us not to use her name out of concern for retaliation, resented the public messaging. “I was disappointed that they contacted the media about that, because I guess to me, that just seems very underhanded,” she explained.

Without a hard policy on going remote, she said a common feeling among her peers now is a sense of entrapment. “I looked into taking a leave of absence this summer when the plan came out,” she explained. “And because I carry the health insurance for my family, like a lot of us do, there were a lot of people that didn't take a leave of absence that maybe would have pursued it if they had known that this plan would change.”

LEA president Rita Bennett says the statement was made partly out of an obligation she felt to warn members of legal risks.

“There's also a code of ethics of the teaching profession, and we also have to uphold that,” she said. “That code of ethics also means that if there is an action that is illegal, could be detrimental to our members, that we also have a duty and a responsibility to those members.”

Bennett knows there is a sense of “frustration, exhaustion, and bewilderment” among staff due to the increasingly uncontrolled pandemic and how it’s impacted teachers’ workloads. This week, Nebraska has broken its daily case average and active hospitalization records twice.

“And, and there's real concern over the long term, that this kind of load isn't sustainable,” said Bennett.

As of Wednesday, 143 LPS staff members are in isolation or quarantine. District officials say about 22% of slots that would usually be filled by a substitute go unfilled; when that happens, other teachers often use their plan time to cover the class.

After LEA pushed unsuccessfully against reopening schools, Bennett says union leadership started to focus on what improvements to teachers’ workflows were achievable. That’s where the focus remains now.

“If we cannot win the big battle, if we can't get the big ask, that doesn't mean we just take our ball and go home,” she said. “That means that we start trying to collaborate and figure out okay, well, what can we do to at least make the bad situation less bad?”

But she says there have been some small wins, mentioning recent proposals to expand prep time for staff and give more students time off. The LPS school board approved those measures this week after a listening session with teachers.

Both teachers in this piece conceded the pandemic is causing increased tension between teachers, their union, and the school district, who have not often come to a consensus on what is needed to support learning during this time.

Bennett said she sees the dynamics as a reflection of both the pandemic’s impact on America’s emotional wellbeing in the midst of a crisis and the deep desires of teachers to do their job safely.

“We want every member to reach out to us with their concerns, their ideas, even people who don't agree with me,” she said.

“Sometimes it's not easy. Sometimes it's messy. Sometimes it gets a little contentious, but we keep at it.”