Thursday, September 24, 2020
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.