More than 100 Grosse Pointe teachers stay home after COVID change

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Grosse Pointe Woods — More than 100 teachers across the Grosse Pointe Public School System stayed home from work Wednesday, just days after the district changed its COVID-19 contact tracing policy to reduce the number of students in quarantine.

Substitute teachers, central office staff, teachers from other buildings and other staffers from the Grosse Pointe Public School System had to be deployed to cover classes for the 116 absent teachers, including 47 teachers at North High School.

Students are gathered inside the gymnasium at Grosse Pointe North High School on Wednesday, when dozens of teachers at the school and others in the district stayed home.

Superintendent Gary Niehaus, who held a press conference Wednesday afternoon at district administrative offices, said the school system normally has an average of 61 teachers out on a given day. Niehaus said he sat in on two classes at North High — German and TV production — to cover for teachers.

Niehaus said he considered the large number of teachers who did not report for work to be a "one-day event" and acknowledged there is a difference of opinion on the board's decision to ease quarantine rules to allow more students to be in school face-to-face.

"I don't know that it ends here. I don't think that anything ends in COVID ... It got everyone's attention," he said.

Grosse Pointe school Superintendent Gary Niehaus speaks about the large number of teacher absences in the district on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

Niehaus said he planned to reach out to teachers' union leadership Wednesday afternoon.

In an email to North families, Niehaus said: "While I am disappointed that many of our North teachers negatively impacted our students today by being absent, I am pleased at how we came together as OneGP and supported our North students during this unfortunate situation."

For subscribers:Grosse Pointe had 'unsustainable' number of students in quarantine. So it changed the rules

"Along with the North teachers and staff that came to work today, a team of central office staff, administrators from other buildings, North administrators, and other staff stepped in as classroom substitutes," he said.  

In his email, Niehaus said teachers began submitting their one-day absence requests Tuesday afternoon.

Christopher Pratt, president of Grosse Pointe Education Association, said a member of Niehaus's staff did have brief contact with the union Wednesday afternoon to ask if teachers were going to not report "again" on Thursday.

Pratt told the official the decision of teachers to use a personal day was not an organized job action. Later Wednesday, he issued a statement taking issue with Niehaus' criticism of teachers taking earned personal time.

"In light of this dedication to our students, we were very disheartened to read a statement from the superintendent sent to GP families today that publicly criticized our teachers who chose to use that leave time," Pratt said. "That public criticism harms the already low morale of our teachers, who have worked very hard during this pandemic to keep teaching and learning on track whether in remote, hybrid or full face-to-face."

Pratt said Michigan is experiencing a severe teacher shortage.

"Teachers have many options among many districts to choose from. If GPPSS wants to continue to attract the best and brightest to teach in our district, it would be in everyone's best interest for the administration to refrain from attacking teachers for using leave time," Pratt said.

Pratt said early Wednesday many teachers are simply stressed out by the board's decision to lower the distance for contact tracing below federal and state guidance to 3 feet when positive COVID-19 cases are found among staff and students.

Students at Grosse Pointe North High School on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

"Teachers are feeling stressed as the result of the board's action," Pratt said. "I assume teachers needed to take a mental health day."

Pratt said teachers have individual leave bank days to use for whatever reason they want, mental health, physical illness or other needs.

The district is informed when the teacher puts the day into a computer system.

North High student Cecilia Doerr said six of her seven teachers did not show up for school on Wednesday and she and many other students spent most of the day in the gym. Still, Doerr said she supports their decision to not teach and take a stand.

"Most of us are angry. Those are our teachers and they have stood by us. We have to stand up for them as well," she said.

A group of North students is planning a "blackout" day on Thursday, asking fellow students to wear all black clothing and shoes in support of teachers, Doerr said. Some students made T-shirts expressing support for teachers.

Students made T-shirts to support their GPPSS teachers.

"They are not being respected or listened to. It was weird today, but I understand why they weren’t there," she said. "I was pretty proud of what they were doing it for. I thought it was a good use of their voice. Students are upset for them."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state of Michigan define close contact as someone who has been within 6 feet of an infected person.

Niehaus said students were being "over-quarantined" and the current guidelines were unsustainable because so many students were stuck at home.

The change was approved late Monday night by the district's school board in a 6-1 vote. 

According to data released by the district, more than 1,900 students needed to quarantine after potential exposure in April alone, as well as some teachers and staff. 

North parent Barbara House said Niehaus' email angered her.

House said the board is not listening to teachers who oppose changes and have raised concerns about classroom conditions during the pandemic, including Sean McCarroll, a teacher and department chair at North who resigned this month in protest. 

House, whose son attends the district's online learning program, says she hopes the teachers stay out longer.

"The teachers are at their breaking point. They need help," House said. "Everything is being disrupted all the time."