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POLK COUNTY — Despite reports that as many as 1,600 Polk County Public Schools teachers could be absent on Monday, January 13, the district has repeatedly affirmed over the weekend its intention to remain open that day.

The teachers expected to be absent on Monday are headed to Tallahassee to participate in the “Take on Tallahassee” rally, where they will be joined by teachers from around the state to lobby lawmakers for more support for educators on the eve of the beginning of the 2020 legislative session.

“As we prepare for school on Monday, we want to assure our community that students will be safe and supervised by qualified, caring personnel,” read a PCPS statement sent on Jan. 11 and posted to the district’s Facebook page. “We have more than 650 substitutes and 450 district staff members, who will be working alongside school-based staff members, to conduct school on Monday. In some high schools, we are using a modified schedule to reduce our need for teachers that day.”

The release went on to say:

“In addition to substitutes, strategic placement of district staff, and coordination with local municipalities, we continue to work with our substitute provider, Kelly Educational Services, (and have been working with them since November 13, 2019) to ensure we have maximum substitute participation by offering mileage and additional hours of pay for working on Monday. We also provided teaching resources to district staff who will be assigned to schools.”

In a follow-up release sent Jan. 12, the district indicated it was working with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and that PCSO would be “supplying 30 additional deputy sheriffs to provide in classroom help for elementary schools.”

District staff have been aware of the rally, and planned participation by members of the county’s teachers union — the Polk Education Association — since November, per the release.

Despite that, an uptick in time off requests and anticipated absences last week have left district staff with a tall task.

“As the rally drew closer, anticipated absences more than doubled, which left just days to plan for an additional 1,000 staff absences,” PCPS Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd said in the statement. “I reached out to state leaders to request guidance on our plan to bring well-qualified and caring substitutes, and non-school based employees of our district, into schools to ensure a safe learning environment.”

The response Byrd received from the Florida Department of Education has generated more controversy ahead of Monday’s absences.

The message from FDOE General Counsel Matthew Mears was largely perceived to be threatening the jobs of teachers who would be absent, suggesting they were effectively going on strike by taking personal days en masse to attend the rally and that each teacher who attended could be fired and collectively fined.

“A public employee violating the strike provision may be terminated from their public position, subject to reemployment upon particular significant limitations,” Mears wrote. “As the Department of Education, we have highest obligation to ensure that Polk County educators are advised of the risks associated with participating in a coordinated effort to not report for duty.”

That message was reportedly forward to PCPS teachers around 9 p.m. Friday night, resulting in a strong backlash on social media from teachers. In Byrd’s statement on Saturday, she sought to clarify that she personally was not threatening the employment of the teachers who would be absent Monday.

“The letter from FDOE’s General Counsel was not a threat from me to fire staff,” Byrd wrote.

The superintendent's words were not enough to prevent teachers from expressing concern on social media and on Saturday Stephanie Yocum, the president of the Polk Education Association, wrote a message to the union’s members on the organization’s Facebook page.

“If you have not RSVP’d and received a confirmation email from PEA to go on the bus to Tallahassee, you should report to work on Monday. Again, you should report to work,” Yocum wrote. “We have learned that the superintendent has forwarded a strongly worded email from the Commissioner of Education. I was also made aware of district concerns about attendance late this afternoon, after a spike in personal days requested. If you have not RSVP’d and received a confirmation email from PEA to go on the bus to Tallahassee, you should report to work on Monday. … It is important that the public message remain about what our students need to be successful and we must not allow the commissioner to turn this into a distraction.”

The Polk Education Association has planned a rally in downtown Lakeland at Munn Park on Monday afternoon for teachers who cannot attend the rally in Tallahassee, as well as any parents or members of the community who would like to lend their support. That rally, per a Facebook event page, is scheduled to take place between 4:30 and 6 p.m.

“For those of us who can't go to Tallahassee, this is your chance to be seen!” read the event posting.