A New Orleans charter school teacher has been fired, she says, for criticizing her school’s plan to have teachers conduct remote lessons from their classrooms.
Heather Harris served as the director of curriculum and instruction for social studies at Harriet Tubman, a charter school in Algiers. The school is a part of Crescent City Schools, a New Orleans charter school network. She told New Orleans Public Radio that she was fired after questioning her school’s plan which she said requires teachers to teach from the building, rather than from their homes. Crescent City Schools has disputed her description of events.
In an emailed statement, Kate Mehok, founder and CEO of Crescent City Schools, referred to Harris as a “disgruntled former employee” and said that her claims are “unfounded” and “untrue.”
The New Orleans public school district announced earlier this week that it will start the school year virtually, after a surge in coronavirus cases forced the district to abandon its plan for limited in-person instruction.
But while students are required to learn from home, school buildings will be open to provide “critical services,” and teachers may work from their classrooms during this period, Superintendent Dr. Henderson Lewis Jr. said at a press conference Tuesday.
Following the announcement, concerns were quickly raised about whether teachers would be required to work from their classrooms or whether coming into the building would be optional.
Many teachers are concerned that since city and school officials have determined that it is unsafe to welcome students back to the building, it may be unsafe for staff to come back to the building as well. For teachers who are also parents, the decision to bring teachers back to the building before kids go back to school means they may struggle to find childcare.
Some schools have left the decision up to teachers, while others have mandated that their staff teach from their classrooms. The district said it’s up to individual schools to decide how they handle teacher concerns.
As a member of the leadership team, Harris said she had been preparing to return to school even if students were remote.
She hired a part-time nanny to watch her two young children and worked with her supervisor to condense her workday to allow her to juggle child care responsibilities with her husband, who also works full-time. Harris said she was at no point offered the option of working from home.
After the district’s announcement that the school year would start remotely, Harris said the leadership team was given a document outlining the school’s plans for remote learning.
According to Harris and documents provided to New Orleans Public Radio, the plan set the expectation that teachers would work in the building at least part of the week and would not have the option to work entirely remotely.
The plan outlined scenarios where teachers could potentially rotate in and out of the building and spend several days a week working at home. But it also made clear that it was not the teacher's choice and that the expectation was that they would work from the building whenever needed.
Harris said she felt the decision was a mistake, that the school could hold teachers accountable in other ways, and that letting teachers make their own choices would allow them to be creative and innovative — something that is essential to remote learning.
“I felt like the policy sent the message that the school distrusted teachers more than they cared about their safety,” Harris said. “I just felt it was my responsibility to try to protect teachers’ rights since they weren't even at the table to voice their opinions on the plan that would affect them more than anyone.”
Harris said she made her opinions known during a virtual meeting, in which other educators brought up similar concerns, and later in an email to her supervisor, Principal of the Blue Tubman Campus Zondra Howard.
According to Harris, her concerns were immediately rebuffed. When she pressed them further, Harris said Howard asked her to leave her position either temporarily or permanently. She offered her unpaid leave for 12 weeks or the option to resign with four weeks of pay and two months of benefits.
Harris says she declined both options and was fired by Howard on July 22 during an in-person training.
Kate Mehok, said in an email that the claims against Zondra Howard are “absolutely untrue” and “distract us from the important work that needs to be done.”
Mehok did not provide additional information regarding the decision to fire Harris citing the charter’s policy to not comment on specific personnel matters.
Crescent City Schools have spent the summer establishing “hospital-level protocols” to keep everyone safe, according to Mehok.
“In order to run schools and ensure that students get a top quality education (whether virtual or in person), schools need staff to come to work,” Mehok wrote. “Our superintendent shared Tuesday that staff will come to buildings to work, and every charter school in the city is following that guidance.”
But some charter schools have operated with far greater flexibility and will allow teachers to decide whether or not they will come into the building during this phase of instruction.
NOLA Public Schools said that it’s up to individual schools to decide when teachers need to be in the building and to work with them when accommodations are needed.
“Each school is working with their staff to determine potential schedules for trainings and when and how some teachers may need to be on campus to utilize resources available to them to conduct distance learning for their students,” NOLA Public Schools said in a statement.
Several charter operators told New Orleans Public Radio they saw no need to mandate that teachers work from their classrooms while students are remote.
Benjamin Franklin High School’s Head of School Dr. Patrick Widhalm said that while the building will be “open for teachers who prefer to work from their classroom or who need access to particular equipment,” they will not be required “or even expected to do so.”
“They became very proficient when stay-at-home was implemented in March and will be using the next few weeks to improve the online learning experience even more,” Widhalm said in an email.
Collegiate Academies, which operates five New Orleans charter schools, will let teachers decide whether to work from home or from the building, according to Senior Director of Communications Dominque Howse.
“Teachers will have the choice; as there aren’t any requirements for teachers to be in the building,” Howse said in an email.
Erica Mariola is founding English teacher at Livingston Collegiate Academy and has known Heather Harris professionally for seven years.
She said she appreciates her school’s decision to give teachers the option to work in the building or from home and thinks more schools should do the same.
“If the city of New Orleans adopted a virtual start to the school year for safety reasons, why would a school or network then mandate their staff physically return to school?” Mariola said in an email. “I think it’s ludicrous for a network to mandate that staff and teachers return to the building to work.”
Mariola said that many teachers across the city worry they’ll be exposed to the virus if they return to their classrooms: “How could that possibly lead to strong instruction?”
She described Harris as a “passionate” and “thoughtful” educator and said she was “enraged” when she heard she had been fired.
“Heather was just urging her school leader to consider if mandating teachers to come into the physical building was necessary and in line with their values as a school,” Mariola said in an email. “I cannot believe she was asked to not return.”
Many charters did not respond to New Orleans Public Radio’s requests for comment, but several teachers reached out to say that they will be required to teach from their classrooms.
“I think this is really not about individual action. It’s about systemic injustice,” Harris said. “I think the federal government has put schools and principals in an extremely difficult situation and that pointing fingers at individual educators or schools right now is really counterproductive because we're all stuck in the middle of a federal failure.”
Harris said the situation in New Orleans is particularly fraught because of the citywide charter school system, which has prevented teachers from unionizing.
According to the Louisiana Charter School Board legal handbook, charter schools can hire employees on an at-will basis. This means that teachers can be fired at any time and for any reason, as long as the reason is not found to be discriminatory or unlawful.
“Teachers should have the right to voice concerns about their schools’ reopening plan without fear of retribution,” Harris said. “It's clear now more than ever that those rights need protection.”
When asked whether the district is considering whistleblower protections for teachers, a representative said that firing and HR functions are left up to individual charter organizations.
“The district will always provide oversight to assure schools are adhering to local, state and federal laws and guidelines on all employment matters,” NOLA Public Schools said in a statement.