UPDATE: Aug. 4 ― The school changed its policy after publication of this story. Over the weekend, the school’s president told concerned teachers their jobs were not in jeopardy and they could teach virtually if they would prefer. The school is now working with individual teachers to accommodate their individual situations, a teacher told HuffPost.
Staff members at Gerstell Academy, a private school in Carroll County, Maryland, were told this week that they would either have to come back to work in person or they may no longer have a job, three members of the school community told HuffPost.
The sources who spoke to HuffPost say they believe this idea came directly from the school’s founder and chairman of its board of trustees, Frederick G. Smith, a leader of Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Sinclair, which owns hundreds of local television stations around the country with a conservative bent, has come under fire for its coverage of the coronavirus in recent weeks, downplaying the disease’s harmful effects and even toying with airing interviews with conspiracy theorists. Smith co-owns the company with his brothers and acts as its vice president and director.
Gerstell Academy employees have until Friday to make their decisions about returning to school. Only school employees who are over the age of 65 or are currently undergoing chemotherapy are allowed to opt out of the school’s mandate, the sources said. Teachers who are immunocompromised or have immunocompromised family members are left out of the equation.
Neither representatives from the school nor Sinclair responded to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
School leaders gave teachers what was described as an ultimatum on Tuesday and gave them several days to make a choice. Previously, the president of the school had told teachers over Zoom to reach out if they were at high risk of coronavirus complications, noting that “we’re not trying to strong-arm or force anyone to be on campus,” one teacher said. Families have the option of sending their children in-person or participating in virtual learning.
“We know what we bring to the table whether Fred Smith realizes it or not, but we also deserve to live and be safe,” one of the school’s teachers, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, told HuffPost. “This has created a tremendous risk in our community that didn’t exist a few weeks ago, and unfortunately it’s falling along political lines.”
In at least several areas, private schools have been more likely to reopen in-person this fall than public schools. However, while public school teachers have unions to help represent them in negotiations around school reopening plans, most private school teachers must fend for themselves, without the same workplace protections.
The situation at Gerstell, which, at the high school level, costs nearly $25,000 a year to attend, demonstrates the difficult position of private school teachers.
Yet in this case, the school’s reopening plan rings as particularly political, given Sinclair Broadcast Group’s recent messaging on the coronavirus and its stations’ coziness with President Donald Trump. In recent weeks, Trump has threatened to withhold federal funding from public schools that don’t reopen in person ― though it is Congress that authorizes such funding.
Gerstell has a robust reopening plan, including a multitude of safety precautions, say sources who didn’t want to use their names for fear of backlash. While one person says they understand the importance of getting kids back in school and why Smith may want to act as a beacon for the community, the school’s handling of the situation has made teachers feel expendable and caused them to worry that the school is making a decision based on business rather than the health and safety of the community.
The sources say they believe administrators are doing the bidding of Smith, who previously worked as an oral surgeon.
“I think all of us have biases, and yes, he definitely has a perspective that is a more conservative viewpoint than some of the other health professionals that are out there,” said one of the school’s teachers, describing the school as Smith’s special project. “But I would hope his dedication to the school outweighs his dedication to politics.”
The pre-K-12 school, which Smith founded in 1996, is a college preparatory academy with an emphasis on leadership. Gerstell’s website says it serves over 400 students. Anecdotally, one teacher said she heard that the school is seeing increased enrollment from public school students who are clamoring for an in-person experience. But a parent whose child currently attends the school says the situation has made them think less of the institution.
“They’re going to lose wonderful teachers,” said the parent.