Refusing to Return to the Classroom? Here’s What Every Teacher Needs to Know.

(Image via Shutterstock)

By Max Millington

December 10, 2020

Coronavirus or not, some NC districts want students and teachers back in January. NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly explains teachers’ rights.

This pandemic is far from over and the state is facing deadly spikes, yet some NC schools have decided to open their doors for in-person instruction. 

We’ve chronicled the nervous feelings of educators and school workers upon deciding to return. North Carolina’s incoming state superintendent, Catherine Truitt, said this week that she understands parents’ and teachers’ concerns, but the recent decision to require in-person end of year testing is up to the NC General Assembly. 

But many of you have asked us what rights teachers have if they refuse to return to the classroom. It’s a great question.

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North Carolina does not allow collective bargaining for educators in the state. It is a state that’s notoriously opposed to labor organizers. 

But Cardinal & Pine spoke to Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), about the rights of educators and school workers who may be worried about the security of their employment if they choose not to work in-person. 

NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly speaking in October in Charlotte. (Image via Facebook)

C&P: What rights do teachers in North Carolina have if they don’t want to come back to the classroom due to safety concerns? 

Walker Kelly: NCAE has been working with educators across the state who are very concerned about workplace safety during this time. We are glad that in many places, educators are having their requests accommodated by their school districts. (That includes) trying to work with teachers who want to remain virtual and work from home without putting them in the classrooms with students. 

C&P: If a teacher were to be fired or laid off for choosing not to teach in-person, what options are available to them? 

Walker Kelly: Teachers can always reach out to their local school board and human resources departments. We haven’t heard any instances of teachers being fired. But we know many places are doing furloughs or mandating that people come back because they have to make sure that they have adequate staffing. Our members can reach out to our organization’s Advocacy Center, and educators at large can look through other legal means to either ensure that they have continuous employment or look at other means to work with HR departments in order to maintain their request. 

C&P: What advice would you give to educators in general that are worried about doing their jobs during this time?

Walker Kelly: I think the solution here is for school districts and school personnel to be flexible and responsive to the needs of educators. 

There has to be a creative approach to schooling and so I encourage educators to become well versed on school policy, and procedures, to develop relationships with their HR department. Documentation of their own personal issues as it relates to their health accommodations and safety accommodations is important. And I think it just also leads to a broader conversation about worker conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Education workers and all workers in fact, need to be equipped with the tools they need in order to advocate for themselves. These are conditions that we are going to be in for the long haul. It is a global pandemic. So it is not something that is going to resolve itself. 

I think that educators and our school workers, especially our school support professionals like custodians and bus drivers need tools, advocates, and resources in order to make sure that they have all of the necessary information to advocate for safety for themselves and for their colleagues.


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