Tuscaloosa County teachers sue district over COVID-19 workload

Tuscaloosa County School System

By WVUA 23 News Reporter Aajene Robinson

Several teachers in the Tuscaloosa County School System are suing the district for what they say is unfair treatment and overwork during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama’s Western Division, a group of Tuscaloosa County School System teachers filed a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

As first reported in al.com, the lawsuit was filed against the Tuscaloosa County School System and Tuscaloosa County Board of Education, in addition to TCSS Superintendent Keri Johnson and the TCSS Board of Education members.

Teachers Michelle Beasley, Lindsey Warren, Rebecca Kennedy and Cheryl Michaels filed the lawsuit on behalf of themselves as well as other teachers facing the same challenges at TCSS, claiming the system discriminated against them because of their gender and age and didn’t compensate them properly for all their extra work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the lawsuit, TCSS teachers are required to be at the school from 15 minutes before school opens until 15 minutes after school lets out Monday through Friday, high school teachers teach six classes a day and have one or two planning periods, along with a 25-minute lunch break. Middle school teachers teach for five of seven periods, and have planning and meeting time for two periods. Elementary school teachers teach five subjects to the same class and have one planning period a day.

Throughout 2020, that system was disrupted by the requirement that TCSS teachers also teach students who were not attending in person, unlike many other school systems that separated in-class and virtual teaching duties.

Because of the way virtual learning works, the teachers say they were forced to plan separate assignments and instruction for their in-person and virtual classes, which took up an excessive amount of time.

In addition, the teachers had to teach their students how to use the virtual learning software, meaning they spent even more time helping students and their parents overcome technological barriers they were not prepared for. The teachers themselves were not given access to enough training on the software either, the lawsuit alleges.

Doing so much double-duty substantially increased teachers’ workloads, meaning teachers were working late into the evening and on weekends with no breaks, causing stress and exhaustion and reducing the time they could spend outside work caring for their own children and families.

As an example of the overwork, the lawsuit says that during the first nine weeks of the 2020 school year, Beasley’s day consisted of:

  • Teaching six in-person precalculus and honors precalculus classes to on-campus students Monday through Friday
  • Teaching virtual high school precalculus and honors precalculus classes
  • A 50-minute planning period during school hours
  • Creating assignments for on-campus students in both classes and creating separate assignments for virtual students in both classes
  • Communicating with and answering questions from virtual students and their parents
  • Learning how to use the virtual learning platform

She did all that with around 80 on-campus students and 86 virtual students and spent an average of 20 to 30 more hours a week on teaching responsibilities than in years past.

After the first nine weeks, TCSS implemented a new virtual learning platform that required no teacher involvement, but teachers were still required to monitor virtual students’ attendance and assist virtual students with their needs. Teachers who assisted with the new virtual learning platform were given a stipend of around $5,500.

Classes that the new virtual learning platform did not have, including Advanced Placement, special education or foreign language classes, remained being taught through the first virtual platform. Teachers were paid a maximum of $5,500 for teaching virtual classes during the second nine weeks.

Students learning on campus who were quarantined could not use the new platform, so teachers still had to prepare materials for quarantined students in the first platform, meaning their workload did not go down with the new platform’s implementation.

The plaintiff’s attorneys are requesting the court allow the case to proceed as a class-action lawsuit, meaning any other teachers affected could join.

WVUA 23 News reached out to Michelle Beasley Oct. 13, but she did not comment on the pending lawsuit.

Tuscaloosa County School System Superintendent Keri Johnson sent the following statement to WVUA 23 News Oct. 13 regarding the lawsuit:

In 2020, we were faced with the task of completely reimagining the way we deliver education to our students, in a matter of months. At the direction of the Alabama State Department of Education, TCSS adopted a reopening plan. Our plan provided a choice of on-campus or off-campus learning for students, to meet the individual needs of our students and families.

Soon after the start of the 2020-2021 school year, it became clear that the state-provided online learning software did not provide what we expected. In order to quickly get a platform in place that would be more effective for both students and teachers, I recommended to our Board of Education that we use a portion of our federal COVID-19 relief funds to purchase Edgenuity. This is a software program I and other TCSS administrators and teachers had previous experience with, and which was already in use by many other school systems.

TCSS also provided additional compensation to faculty members at each school, to serve as remote learning coaches. The role of the remote learning coach was to provide additional support to off-campus learners, and for the teachers serving those students. In addition to remote learning coaches, some teachers also received compensation above their regular salary. For example, teachers of some Advanced Placement courses or electives not included in the online platform received extra compensation.

The task of educating students during the pandemic was and continues to be monumental. I am so grateful for the work of so many, which has allowed us to continue serving our students during this crisis. There were no perfect solutions during the pandemic, but every decision I made was with the best interest of our students as my number one priority.

While I would like to provide a more complete response regarding inaccurate allegations made in the pending lawsuit, I am confident that our decisions will be validated.

-Dr. Keri C. Johnson, Superintendent

 If you’re interested in browsing the court documents, you can do so at the bottom of the following article: al.com | Tuscaloosa teachers sue over pandemic workload: Oct. 13, 2021

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