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Howard teachers union disagrees with school system’s hybrid plan. Here’s what it is doing in response.

The Howard County teachers union overwhelmingly voted to approve a work-to-rule resolution, according to a letter from the union’s president to the Board of Education on Wednesday.

The resolution, which will go into effect Feb. 22, is a union action that will result in the approximately 6,000 members in the Howard County Education Association to only do what they are contractually obligated to do.

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HCEA President Colleen Morris said the work-to-rule decision was made after her members felt disillusioned by the school system’s hybrid plan, which will begin rolling out March 1. The resolution is a culminating decision following the school board’s shift to approving a hybrid model and the district not ensuring all educators receive vaccines before returning to classrooms.

Morris said the vote received 91% support. Almost 80% of the union’s membership voted, meaning about 4,500 educators voted in favor of the resolution. The union represents about 7,000 educators, and the school system has about 9,000 staff members.

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“This is not our preference, but our entire staff has made it abundantly clear that educators must be vaccinated before returning to worksites,” wrote Morris in the letter. “There is overwhelming support for work-to-rule in every building, at every grade level, on every team and in every department in our county.”

Educators only doing what they must do means they will not work before or after their contractual work day. While small amounts of time are built in during the school day for planning and grading, many teachers spend extra time working after school or on the weekends.

Other potential impacts of a work-to-rule resolution, for the educators who strictly follow it, would be complications with substitute teacher planning and the cancellation of clubs or extracurricular activities in which staff don’t receive a stipend. High school athletics, however, shouldn’t be impacted since most staff receive a small stipend for their coaching.

The last work-to-rule resolution among Howard County educators was in 1991. The union, which represented 2,700 school district educators, chose work to rule to protest spending cuts.

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“This [work-to-rule resolution] is different,” said Morris, who was a first-year kindergarten teacher at Laurel Woods Elementary in 1991, during a Feb. 11 board meeting. “That one was about a broken contract. This isn’t your ordinary work to rule. This is a work to rule for our lives. Our members have reached a breaking point, and your model puts them at great risk for very little, if any, improvement over virtual learning.”

Morris’ letter said the resolution will remain in place until educators are fully immunized before returning to school buildings. Morris is also requesting the school system put in place the mitigation and metrics strategies the union has suggested, such as cohorting, more detailed contact tracing and community spread parameters to guide whether schools remain open.

Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano wrote in an email that he “understands the uncertainty” staff has ahead of the district’s hybrid model rollout on March 1 but reiterated his confidence in the hybrid plan.

“While some of our students have had success in the virtual environment, there are many who need the services and supports that can only be provided in an in-person setting,” he wrote. “We have worked closely with our partners from the health department to ensure that proper [personal protective equipment] is in place, and our phased reopening follows all [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] health and safety guidelines.”

Chao Wu, the school board’s chairperson, couldn’t be reached for comment Friday morning.

Union members voted on the work-to-rule resolution last week, and the union sent the letter to the board the day after its drive-in rally to protest the impending hybrid model Tuesday night.

While several aspects of the start of hybrid learning have frustrated Morris and the union’s members, the main issue is vaccinations. Morris wants all of her members to be vaccinated before returning to buildings, but from the beginning, Martirano and Howard County Health Officer Dr. Maura Rossman have said it’s unlikely — and now impossible — for all 9,000 district staff to be vaccinated before they’re asked to return to buildings.

As of last week, Martirano said 30% of the district’s staff had received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. On top of the 2,700 staff members to receive their first dose, an additional 1,500 staff had a scheduled appointment.

In addition to the lack of supply of vaccines to inoculate every educator before returning, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has said vaccinations should not be a “prerequisite” for starting hybrid learning.

About 85% of Howard County educators have committed to returning to school buildings in March and April, according to a survey done by the district. Almost 12% requested accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act, while about 3% will resign, retire or take leave.

The journey to get students, who have been learning virtually since last April after the pandemic shuttered buildings in March, back into classrooms didn’t come easy.

Last summer, the school board approved a plan to stay virtual through February. Then, in November, the board extended that to mid-April.

However, the board was spurred to action last month after Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement that he would pursue consequences for school systems that didn’t get their students back in classrooms in March. A week later, the board approved a phased-in hybrid model to begin in March, with all students who want to partially be back in classrooms returning by April 12. All students, including those who choose to remain fully virtual, will see an increase in instructional time from about 12-13 hours a week to 20-25 hours.

About 4,000 students, and the staff to support them, will return March 1, and educators will teach both groups concurrently — a method Morris has called “impossible” for teachers.

“This is an avoidable conflict,” Morris wrote to the board. “You chose to acquiesce to the governor’s demands, and you can also choose to postpone reopening until staff are fully immunized. You can return to sensible health metrics in compliance with CDC guidelines, and you can stand up on our behalf to bullying behavior by Governor Hogan and the state superintendent.”

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