AUSTIN (KXAN) — Despite approving the majority of teacher requests to work from home for the fall semester during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Austin Independent School District has denied the majority of requests to work remotely for the spring semester.
Austin ISD told KXAN of the 1,156 accommodation requests received, a district committee denied 940, approved 48 and 168 are incomplete as of Tuesday.
AISD sent the following explanation for the stark difference between the fall and spring:
“As we look toward the spring semester, we are preparing to welcome more students back to on-campus instruction. We know that it is paramount that our teachers and staff are able to provide the high-quality, on-campus teaching and support that each and every student deserves. The committee consulted with local health authorities regarding the CDC’s list of health conditions that could put employees at higher risk, and learned that the risk posed was greatly reduced by the health and safety protocols in place at our campuses. It was determined that only those at the highest risk who could best fulfill their duties remotely would be eligible for remote work, in order to best support teaching and learning for students.“
Confused and upset teachers started reaching out to KXAN Monday night, as soon as they received their denial letters from the district.
Ray Lopez-Mata, a pre-k teacher at Barrington Elementary School who said he is currently teaching from home due to diabetes and a heart condition, said his accommodation was denied.
Patty Candelaria, a dyslexia therapist in training at Kiker Elementary, said her request was also denied—even though she has a congenital heart defect and has had three open-heart surgeries.
Navarro Early College High School teacher Karen Casto said she got the same answer, even though she’s 70-years-old and has moderate to severe asthma.
“A 32-year employee that I talked to a little earlier, she has congestive heart failure, she has diabetes, she is 60-years-old, and she is African-American,” said Ken Zarifis, President of Education Austin. “If that doesn’t get an approval, what in the world world will?”
In an email, AISD told KXAN a committee consulted with local health authorities and were told safety protocols on campus greatly reduced the COVID-19 risk. Those protocols include wearing masks, social distancing, temperature checks and deep cleaning.
“Our schools are safe. They are safe for our students and safe for our staff,” said Leslie Stephens with AISD’s Human Capital Department. “Our schools are not the big spreaders of the virus.”
Therefore, AISD said it decided only those with the highest risk, who could successfully work remotely, would be allowed to do so.
“Medical condition is one criteria utilized, but not the only criteria utilized,” Stephens said.
Stephens said a Benefits Review Committee had several other criteria in mind when reviewing each applicant. That includes, but is not limited to:
- Could the job be done from home?
- Would this cause a hardship on the school?
- Would colleagues have to shoulder the load for the accommodated teacher?
Teachers who asked how to appeal the district’s decision said they were told there is no appeals process.
“It makes me really disheartened that Austin ISD would not have an appeal process where a committee decides this without regards to the person behind the name,” said Candelaria.
Instead, the district is asking all of these employees to request alternative accommodations which might be more easily granted. Examples include additional PPE, extra spacing in the classrooms and plexiglass barriers on teacher desks.
“Think about what makes you feel comfortable at the grocery store or whatever you’ve had to do since March,” Stephens instructs AISD employees. “What are the pieces that you have that make you feel comfortable? If it is an N95 mask, we can provide that. If you need to arrive 10 minutes before students arrive, we can accommodate that.”
Now, teachers are left with a decision to make. Casto said her plan prior to the denial was to work from home until she could get the vaccine.
“I’m going to keep trying, because honestly with a vaccine coming out so soon why they couldn’t just give us a month by month, so that we can have a chance to get vaccinated before we went back to school?” said Casto.
Lopez-Mata said he can’t afford not having a job and has already reached out to his principal asking for specifics about health and safety procedures in place.
“I will go back, but I’m going to be very aware of what’s happening,” said Lopez-Mata.
Request processes at other school districts
KXAN reached out to other local school districts to learn more about their process for approving accommodation requests. Here’s what we found.
The Manor Independent School District was unable to provide data on how many requests were approved for the spring but did pass along information for the fall semester. District spokesperson Angel Vidal Jr. says 66 employee requests were granted and 34 were denied in the fall.
Manor ISD employees who want to work remotely must contact the Human Capital Department, where they can submit an “alternate work arrangement request” and schedule an appointment.
Vidal says the consideration process is much like the district’s Americans with Disability Act process.
“The final decision is based on the most appropriate outcome for the needs of the employee and the District,” Vidal said.
Once requests are approved, Vidal says individuals are reassessed every 30 days.
Unlike Austin ISD’s re-approval process for the spring, the Leander Independent School District’s approved requests from the fall will carry over into the spring automatically “as long as student needs allow it,” according to spokesperson Matt Mitchell.
Teachers may be required to return on campus if student needs change.
Data the district provided from Oct. 1 shows 51 requests total were approved for elementary and secondary school workers. Thirty seven other accommodations were given out, and 50 employees resigned due to COVID-19.
ROUND ROCK ISD
In the Round Rock Independent School District, requests were approved for the school year, meaning the spring semester is included, according to spokesperson Maritza Gallaga. That’s if campus and district needs don’t change.
Employees can also apply for requests at any time during the year.
“The final decision to approve a request will be based on district needs, employee’s performance, available resources, employee’s needs and supervisor input,” Gallaga said.
In the district, there are currently 217 active accommodations requests, and 280 staff members who were on accommodations have now returned on campus.
The Eanes Independent School District is starting discussions about requests for the spring semester, but it doesn’t anticipate big changes, according to Chief Communications Officer Claudia McWhorter.
The district did not give data for how many accommodations were granted or denied.
“We continue to work one-on-one with staff requests to determine the best path forward,” McWhorter said.
Staff members were required to return to campuses Sept. 21, the district says. Additional safety precautions like more personal protective equipment, plexiglass and altered work schedules are in place.
In the Hays Consolidated Independent School District, spokesperson Tim Savoy says employees work with the HR department on a case-by-case basis and requests aren’t approved by the semester, but rather by the worker’s medical needs.
Requests are also evaluated based on physician recommendations for the employee or the employee’s immediate family member with a high-risk medical condition, Savoy says. Campus and student needs are also taken into account.
While the district didn’t have current numbers to give out, Savoy says back in October, Hays CISD had 99 teacher requests to work from home, and all were approved except for two.
Additionally, the district has a protocol flowchart online, which guides employees in regards to COVID-19 and quarantining.