Mark A.D. Williams told his schools’ human resources department that he was uncomfortable returning to his classroom for in-person instruction.
He later decided he would teach in person, but he had concerns about the Environmental Charter School’s plan. In a video lesson for students, he outlined how school will be different when they go back.
Three days later, on Tuesday, the fourth grade science teacher received a letter that said he was suspended without pay for eight days while ECS investigated a claim of insubordination.
Mid-day Friday, Williams was told he was reinstated and was asked to return to his classroom Monday. Williams said he wants to return to teaching once the administration has apologized and heard from “my family, students and community members about how they were hurt in the process.”
Neither the union that represents Williams nor the ECS administration say they can discuss details of the personnel matter.
Parents pled this week for the Pittsburgh-based charter school system to return Williams to his job. Many of the ECS’s 950 students will return to in-person learning Feb. 22 with a hybrid model for the first time in 11 months. The four-school district is one of a handful in Allegheny County that has remained mostly remote since the statewide pandemic shutdown in March.
Some vulnerable students have learned in-person for months. According to ECS, no cases have been transmitted within its buildings.
More than 800 people signed an online petition demanding Williams be reinstated. Several implored the school board during a virtual meeting Wednesday to reinstate the educator who parents have described as the ECS Mister Rogers.
In many ways, Williams’ suspension is a case study of the various issues plaguing educators. Williams said he is not opposed to reopening for in-person learning, but he has concerns about the planning process. He is willing to return for his students, but he’s scared. He and his colleagues have unionized, but are still negotiating their first contract - adding another layer of tension to the situation.
This fall, Williams said the ECS community rallied behind him when a group of men threatened him and called him a racial slur in Riverview Park. Williams, who identifies as mixed-race, was filming a nature video at the time for his students.
“When I was called the N-word in the park by three strangers, it was humiliating,” he said. “But the way that I’ve been treated now hurts on a level that is deeper than anything I’ve experienced as an employee of any organization in my entire life.”
Less than a quarter of ECS teachers identified as Black, Hispanic, Asian or multi-racial in a 2020 demographic survey. According to the district, 64% of students are white and 22% are Black.
Williams talks to his students in the style of Mister Rogers who once said “if something is mentionable, it is manageable.”
“The thing that I was worried about is that I didn’t know if [students] had someone who was telling them the big scary truth in a way that made space for their emotions, in a way that validated all of their fears and worries, in a way that pointed them to the reassurance that they are in the care of trusted adults who are looking out for them,” he said.
In that spirit, Williams posted a pre-recorded video for his Environmental Literacy class on Feb. 14 about informed decisions. It was later removed from his classroom Google website. Williams uploaded the video to his personal Youtube page.
In it he tells students that he would wear two masks when they returned to school. He assigned them to watch a video of Bill Nye explaining the science that supports wearing two masks. He asked them to then explain if new information changed their decisions.
Williams wanted his students to know that school would look and feel different. Classrooms will be colder because the CDC recommends keeping windows open. While ECS plans to allow students take off their masks to eat lunch, Williams didn’t think that was safe. He said his class would eat lunch outside.
“I think at ECS we should be one of the most cautious schools because we care about the environment, we care about the community and we are developing citizens who are ready to make this world better than it already is. And plus, ‘yo, Mr. Williams is your [Environmental Literacy] teacher and I hold the record for days outside in class, am I right?’” he said.
He told them that many teachers were scared. He said that some had applied for unpaid leave or asked to teach virtually. Many weren’t allowed to do so, he said.
“So right now teachers are having to decide ‘do I want to quit being a teacher, the thing I love most, or do I want to do what’s best for my family and stay home?’” he said in the video.
Williams acknowledged that what he was sharing could be triggering for his students.
“I want you to make sure that you’re making space for your big emotions and remembering that while your emotions are big, that part of you that makes you you, that makes you the individual, unique, creative, awesome you is even bigger than your scariest emotion,” he said. “You’re big enough to contain that emotion and let it flow through you.”
He then strummed a guitar and sang a song he wrote about those big emotions.
“May I one day come to understand, we all just children doing the best we can,” he sang.
Nikole Sheaffer, chief innovation and outreach officer for ECS, said Thursday that Williams’ suspension was not made lightly.
“So any time that something like this happens, it feels traumatic to an organization. But it also is something that is not taken with a grain of salt or that has completely no merit behind any kind of movement forward,” she said.
James Doyle, the chief operating officer of ECS, said the district values diversity of opinion. He said, though, it is impossible to please everyone.
“But that doesn’t mean we didn’t hear the voices,” he said. “But not everyone can be pleased with every decision that is ultimately made.”
Sheaffer compared reopening schools to launching a rocket to the moon.
“Quite literally you need all of those people to be on board and understand the nuance of how difficult this is and to rally all together to get that monumental think off the ground. From schedule, to bussing and transportation, to cleaning protocols, all of the way down to how are we going to deliver high quality instruction to a student on a daily basis, to the moment that a kid feels trauma because they haven’t actually sat in a chair for the last nine months,” she said.
Administrators say teachers need to be prioritized for vaccinations. CEO Jon McCann said that the state-level leaders didn’t provide clear direction for school leaders make hard decisions.
“I think the school sector is going to rise up after this and have some strong words for the state level and national leadership,” he said.
Environmental Charter School teachers voted to unionize in 2018 with representation from the American Federation of Teachers. Since then the bargaining unit has been negotiating a contract with ECS administration.
The school opened in spring 2008 with a K-3 building in Regent Square. It has since expanded and now serves as a K-9 district with plans to add 10-12 classes. Its’ mission is to “grow citizens.”
In December 2020 ECS and the union agreed on a Memorandum of Understanding to help guide working expectations during the COVID-19 crisis. The MOU allows for in-person instruction of some students with special education services, prioritizes returning students with the highest needs first and outlines mitigation strategies in buildings. It also allows high-risk staff members to work virtually after reopening or take unpaid leave for up to a year. The MOU indicates that the union and management will meet to discuss disputes over the MOU before any public protests are initiated.
Williams said he didn’t qualify to teach virtually. Before he decided he would return in-person, he was concerned that a student with a disability who had been using his empty classroom would be displaced.
He said his building administrators have taken all questions and have been “nothing but gracious,” but they haven’t had a lot of answers.
As for the suspension, Williams said his ideal resolution would be similar to how he handles conflict in his classroom.
“When students hurt the feelings of other students, when students go beyond the personal boundaries of respecting one another, I tell them that they’re welcome back into our classroom immediately if they are willing to come into class and just listen to the way your actions made everyone else feel without being defensive,” he said. “After you’ve heard that, acknowledge your part in causing those students to feel that way. Then apologize for whatever you did and let the students know what your plan is to prevent it from happening in the future.”
Families say the news of Williams’ suspension came as a shock. Michelle Landau hasn’t told her son, one of Williams’ math and environmental literacy students.
“When I found out that he had been suspended, I just felt dread,” she said.
Her son isn’t returning on Monday because transitions are hard for him and Landau wants to help ease his anxieties first.
Throughout the year, Landau said no matter what volume her son has the computer on, she can hear Williams voice from anywhere in the house.
“It’s like a party,” she said. “He’s just got so much enthusiasm. And my son will say something so off topic and I’m thinking ‘oh no, how’s this going to go?’ But with Mr. Williams I never have to worry because he genuinely thinks that whatever a kid says is pretty darn awesome. He’s so interested and has provided so much guidance for kids and their families through the pandemic.”
Landau and other parents say that Williams’ videos have helped adults too.
“I was on the verge of tears because he was giving permission for things to feel hard and difficult and you know for people to be human,” she said.
Beth Ruzanic, an ECS parent who organized the petition, said that Williams embodies everything that ECS says it is.
“I think everybody has the best interest of the kids at heart. But the way they are going about this is just right now very confounding to us,” she said.
Ruzanic said as families transition to the hybrid model, “we, the ECS caregivers and families, are going to remain focused on positive and spirited action we can take to help ease the fear and the sting of this unfortunate and destabilizing move on the part of the school administration."
Parent Rebecca Cooper said Williams advocated for a reopening plan that would prioritize the needs of the school’s most vulnerable students and keep teachers and students as safe as possible.
"Whether we agree with him or not, we support his assertion that teachers need a seat at the table in these discussions," she said.