Picture this. You’re a teacher and you’ve got chronic, stage IV kidney disease and an autoimmune disease that requires you to take regular doses of immunosuppressants. A worldwide viral pandemic hits. Your school closes. Businesses shutter their doors. From Buffalo, to Long Island, to the North Country, to all points in between, New York State comes to a standstill and it stays that way for months on end.
But you learn to adapt. You teach your classes remotely, and you find ways to reach your students and to make things work. Your hard work pays off and you successfully evaluate, and provide grades for your students during that disrupted semester, despite the interruptions, despite the hardships.
Flash forward six months. The pandemic continues and the death count reaches nearly 200,000. Your health conditions put you at high risk. But despite proving over the last semester that you can effectively do your job remotely, your district demands that you return, in-person, to the classroom. Knowing that it puts you at significant risk for contracting the virus, and knowing that contracting the virus could very well endanger your life.
Sarahjane Harrigan, an elementary music teacher at Watkins Glen Elementary School for over two decades, doesn’t have to imagine this scenario. She’s living it. After submitting an accommodation request to her district’s business manager in early August to provide remote music instruction to elementary students, her request was denied. A modified request to live stream instruction from a separate elementary classroom was also denied. The district’s final offer was a one-year, unpaid leave of absence.
With mortgage payments, a child in college, ongoing medical expenses and other financial commitments, sacrificing a year’s pay wasn’t an option for Harrigan. “Sarahjane’s case was very frustrating,” said Jeanette Lasko, president of the Watkins Glen Faculty Association. District administrators have denied telework accommodation requests as being “inconsistent with the essential functions of the job” according to court filings. “Based on her [Sarahjane’s] health issues, we thought it was pretty straightforward, but we kept meeting with resistance. The district just wasn’t willing to bend.”
Harrigan’s experience is far too common as schools reopen this fall. Despite state health department guidance mandating that faculty and staff who face increased risks for COVID-19 be offered accommodations, including remote learning or telework, many districts aren’t honoring those requests. That leaves educators with a difficult choice — their livelihood or their lives.
To protect the health and safety of members, NYSUT filed two lawsuits in September, one against the Watkins Glen Central School District in Schuyler County, another against the Yonkers City School District in Westchester County. The lawsuits challenge the districts’ policies and allege that their telework accommodation denials conflict with mandatory guidance from New York State’s Department of Health.
“No educator should ever have to choose between their health and their livelihood,” said Andy Pallotta, NYSUT president. “DOH guidelines are clear — districts must enact policies to not only control the transmission of COVID-19, but to also protect its most at-risk school faculty and staff from the virus.
“That these districts would willingly put vulnerable staff at-risk is unbelievable,” continued Pallotta. “It literally puts them between the proverbial rock and a hard place, forced to choose between a paycheck and, potentially, their lives.”
Yonkers City School District administrators have denied some 40 telework requests from educators with a range of severe risk factors, including kidney transplants, HIV infection, heart disease, severe lung scarring and impairments, severe respiratory issues and post-partum infection. The denials forced many to use sick leave or to take unpaid leave of absences to protect themselves.
As it turns out, their precautions were justified since Yonkers reported COVID-19 cases basically from day one, including an outbreak at School 17 that led to staff teleworking in quarantine for the first two weeks of September. The Yonkers Federation of Teachers is led by Samantha Rosado-Ciriello.
“We’re not looking to create waves, we just want to help members get the accommodations they need,” said Lasko noting that a case of COVID-19 occurred at Watkins Glen High School recently putting five teachers and several students in quarantine. “But exposures can happen in the blink of an eye. When you’re dealing with a situation that could catastrophically affect lives, it’s better to be proactive than reactive.”