This week, MEA members gave and they received.
They gave feedback to policymakers and the public in the form of survey answers sounding their alarm. And they received clarification from the state on information their school administrators must supply to make educators show up to an empty classroom for “remote” teaching.
The week started with a Sunday evening announcement from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that high schools, community colleges and universities across the state would take an in-person pause for three weeks starting Wednesday.
Those changes were announced with other restrictions involving bars, restaurants and public places where transmission rates of the coronavirus are known to be higher. PK-8 schools were allowed to remain open, based on evidence suggesting less transmission was happening there.
MEA President Paula Herbart praised the increased steps to protect public health, but said in a Sunday night message to members that the order from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) did not go far enough.
“With the number of new cases setting records daily, we believe it’s in the best interest of all students and school employees for in-person learning to be temporarily suspended for all grades,” Herbart said.
MEA Releases Statewide Survey Results
On Tuesday morning, MEA held a virtual press conference to release a statewide online survey of more than 4,700 educators which found a vast majority of educators are concerned about a full return to in-person learning as cases spike statewide.
The teleconference call with media garnered print and broadcast coverage of the survey’s results throughout Michigan and in other states.
“The health and safety of our public school students, educators and families has never been more important as we continue to see COVID-19 cases skyrocket across the state,” Herbart said. “This survey shows us Michigan’s public school employees are concerned about the safety of re-opening for full in-person learning, with their personal safety and that of their students and colleagues as their top priorities.
“With COVID-19 cases on the rise it has never been more important for our front-line educators to be involved in any decisions about a safe return to school,” she added. “We will bring the findings of our survey to policymakers and decision-makers so they understand what front-line educators are feeling and doing regarding this pandemic.”
Herbart column hammers home safety arguments
In her monthly “Labor Voices” column in The Detroit News on Wednesday, President Herbart emphasized our member survey results again – urging policymakers and the public to heed the voices of frontline experts when it comes to school safety during the pandemic.
“That’s been a steady refrain in my monthly columns – but it’s never been more critical than right now with lives on the line,” she wrote.
“It is clear that when it comes to educators, the health and safety of students is their top priority. But we can’t do it alone. MEA has called on state lawmakers to adopt a mask mandate to help combat the spread of COVID-19, a plea that has been shared by the governor and more recently by the incoming Biden-Harris administration.
“It’s time to follow the advice of public health experts to mitigate the spread of this virus. Policymakers must support efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus until such time that a vaccine can be widely-distributed. Based on recent news reports, we know that day is coming but until it’s here, state lawmakers need to protect our students and school employees by putting health and safety before all else.
“That means pausing in-person learning at all levels while cases are skyrocketing, and delaying decisions to transition to greater levels of in-person learning until infection rates are under control.”
Clarity on Rules for “Remote” Teaching from School
Throughout the week, MEA has pushed back on rules many districts have implemented requiring most or all teachers to report to empty classrooms to conduct remote teaching.
“Beyond embracing virtual learning, schools also need to embrace virtual working,” Herbart said. “Roughly one-third of educators engaged in virtual teaching are being required to show up to empty classrooms to work, which poses an unnecessary risk.”
Media questions on the issue prompted the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration – which is responsible for enforcing workplace safety rules – to issue a statement of clarification.
MEA UniServ directors in the field have been filing MIOSHA complaints for members and directing members on how to file their own complaints of workplace safety violations – which can be kept anonymous outside of MIOSHA investigators.
A school district is an employer and must follow the MIOSHA emergency rules that all employers are required to follow.Employers are required to create a policy prohibiting in-person work for employees to the extent that their work activities can feasibly be completed remotely. While there may be circumstances in which a district has in-person activity while students are engaged in remote learning, employers are obligated to demonstrate the infeasibility of remote work.
Employers should include in the remote work determination information which covers at least:
- Which positions/classifications report for in-person work and why they must be physically present in the workplace;
- Reasons that this work cannot be performed remotely. This must include enough specificity to show this analysis has been performed.
This written policy may be part of the employer’s COVID-19 preparedness and response plan. It does not have to be a stand-alone document.
Employers and employees with questions regarding workplace safety and health may contact MIOSHA using the hotline at 855-SAFE-C19 (855-723-3219). To report health and safety concerns in the workplace, go to Michigan.gov/MIOSHAcomplaint.
A set of online resources at Michigan.gov/COVIDWorkplaceSafety provides businesses with the guidelines they and their employees must follow.