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Austin ISD Superintendent Explains Why Teachers' Medical Leave Requests Were Denied

AUSTIN, TX. Oct. 14, 2020. AISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde visits the campus of LBJ Early College High School in October.
Gabriel C. Pérez
AUSTIN, TX. Oct. 14, 2020. AISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde visits the campus of LBJ Early College High School in October.

More than 900 teachers in the Austin Independent School District received a letter this week saying their application to continue teaching remotely for the spring semester was denied.

These teachers submitted documentation showing they had a medical condition that puts them at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

Christopher Winne teaches ninth grade science at International High School, a school where all the students are learning English for the first time. He has diabetes insipidus, an aortic aneurysm, hypertension and atrial fibrillation.

"My physician does worry that each of these conditions and especially all of the conditions combined, if I were to get COVID, would cause me to have severe complications," he said.

During the fall semester, he's been teaching on Zoom because he received a medical accommodation from the school district to do so. Some of his students returned to the school building when that was allowed starting in October, but he remained remote.

"I had a very clear letter that explicitly laid out all of my medical conditions and said why I should work remotely, and that worked the first time," he said. "Now, it seems like they have changed the rules. They asked for the same exact letter to be submitted when we reapplied for spring accommodations, and it seems, based on news reports, they dismissed 940 of us that were originally approved."

Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde says the process did change for the spring semester.

When teachers received medical accommodations over the summer, the district was planning to start the school year online and did so through October. Now, because of a mandate from the Texas Education Agency, the district has to offer in-person learning to any student who wants it.

Elizalde said the logistics of needing to have enough staff in the schools is what led the district to change the requirements for who will get a medical accommodation. Depending on the elementary school, between 40% and 70% of students are back in the classroom, so there needs to be enough teachers there for those students.

"If I could do it so everybody could be at home and feel the safest possible, why wouldn't I want to do that? Elizalde said. "But I also have a lot of kids whose parents are in equal situations where they have to go to work and they need their children to get a certain type of engagement that they aren't getting at home."

During the first round of medical accommodation applications over the summer, the district approved anyone with a condition that put them at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 as listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now that schools are open again, Elizalde said the district had to narrow down who could get an accommodation. The 48 people who received an accommodation for next semester might not have a job considered essential to the district (which classroom teachers are) or might have a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Elizalde said it was a difficult decision to ask most of the teachers in the district to report back next semester.

"I put myself as much as I can in their shoes," she said. "I recognize that, but at the same time, I have a whole other set of staff members that are essential employees, and they didn't even have an option to request an alternate work arrangement. So do we have custodians that have cancer that have to come to work? Yeah, we do. Because if they don't come, they don't get paid. It's also about an equitable application."

Part of why the district made this new blanket policy is to create a more equitable experience for students. Elizalde said district staff worried that some schools would have more teachers teaching in person than others. She also said she didn't want to approve teachers to stay at home and then have more students come back to in-person classes later on, causing her to have to rescind the accommodation part-way through the semester.

But she said she regrets how the district communicated this change to the teachers, via a form letter, without an explanation as to why and how the process changed.

"The thing is, we haven't done a great job of communicating," she said.

The district is now reaching out to the teachers who were denied to explain the process and double check that a teacher doesn't have a disability that qualifies them to stay home.

The district has ordered more N95 masks for teachers who want them, Elizalde said. She also said all schools should have access to cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, and she doesn't want teachers or other staff members paying for these things themselves.

Elizalde is also working with the teacher's union, Education Austin, to test out a process of having individual schools figure out what staff can stay at home and who should come to school. Starting next week, they are going to meet with the staff of an entire school and try and work out a volunteer system of who is willing to come in and who can cover the classes of teachers who feel they need to stay home for medical reasons. Elizalde said if it works, she would like to let all schools in the district try and figure out a similar system.

"These are really difficult situations for us," Elizalde said. "I know that these are not the types of responses that generate confidence, and I ask everyone that even if they do not agree, that they perhaps will show us the grace of trying for a moment to see it from a different perspective."

Correction: A previous version of this story said that all 48 people who got medical accommodations have a disability under ADA. That is not correct.

Got a tip? Email Claire McInerny at claire@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.

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