AUSTIN (KXAN) — During the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees meeting on Monday, Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde clarified her intentions in the accommodation process for staff and shared new details for employees to discuss their options moving forward.
Medical accommodations for district staff have been a highly-debated topic since last Monday, when the district announced only 48 of the 1,244 employees who applied to work from home in the spring were given permission.
Elizalde took responsibility for what she called “hasty” communication from the district about the approval process. Some trustees were critical of the district’s delivery and said it lacked empathy for the needs of many.
“It serves no purpose for me to make decisions that cause angst or hardships on individuals,” Elizalde said, expressing sympathy about the approval process.
Elizalde said a hotline will be operational beginning on Tuesday that employees can use to talk through their own accommodation process and search for solutions that might help them feel safe while doing their job. Options suggested include additional PPE in the classroom, limiting class sizes and utilizing plexiglass barriers on teacher desks.
Elizalde also said the human capital team is allowing appeals to be heard, contradicting the message district officials initially shared with the public.
“I am encouraging individuals, if they have additional documentation that we didn’t get, then we absolutely want that,” Elizalde said, while promising that her staff will send out additional correspondence to those who received a denial to outline options moving forward.
The Benefits Review Committee will review additional documentation for an accommodation to work remotely for employees that have a high-risk medical condition that was not previously disclosed to the Committee. Employees may also request additional accommodations outside of remote work, such as more PPE or modifications to workspaces.Austin Independent School District
Elizalde said education officials have been successful in lobbying Gov. Greg Abbott and the state to consider teachers as frontline workers to receive a vaccine in the priority group directly following medical workers. She estimated the earliest availability of the vaccine for educators to come mid-spring.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel is very long. It is still going to be some time before those are going to be made available,” Elizalde said. “However, we have been successful in lobbying with the state and the governor that teachers and principals could be considered fairly soon after medical health care workers and the elderly.”
Neither the governor nor the Texas Department of State Health Services has revealed any new plans that would include educators in the rollout of vaccines in Texas.
“It appears they are putting teachers in with firemen and policemen,” Elizalde said. “If we want our teachers to be safe and feel safe, we want to do everything we can.”
Elizalde confirmed her commitment to allow 100% virtual instruction to all families who want it for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.
“We will have to continue being courageous during times that are challenging to do so, and we will absolutely put compassion at the forefront of all of the decision making, keeping in mind that there are a sufficient number of data sources talking about that the amount of loss that our students will have will have an impact on lifespan for years to come,” Elizalde said.
Small Middle School Separations
The appeal process could be beneficial for 24 teachers and staff who work at Small Middle School in southwest Austin who are considering sitting out the spring semester due to their own medical needs.
These 24 people were denied, despite being approved to work from home in the fall. They say only one staff member was approved.
“This decision impacts not only teachers, but impacts every single family that chooses one of our schools in Austin. It impacts the programs that we have,” one teacher said. “Students cannot be successful without their teachers. And teachers cannot be successful if they don’t feel supported.”
Nine of the denied teachers say they won’t be returning to campus in January if there is no change to their request. Many said they would resign, retire or go on leave.
Michael Poliakoff, an English Language Arts teacher at the school, sent a letter to Elizalde and the board on behalf of his colleagues. They say virtual learning is working for their specific campus, and the want it to continue.
But he’s willing to compromise, saying he’ll work in-person once he receives a vaccine.
“I have no problem going back to campus if I have a vaccine. I have a problem being forced to do that before its safe to me and my family,” Poliakoff said.
These teachers indicated their situation and ultimatum is not unique to Small Middle School and that separations were happening all across the district.
However, while teacher retirements have nearly doubled between March to November in 2020 compared to 2019, the total amount of separations (retirements + resignations) has declined. The total separations in 2020 from all staff is 1,235 compared to 1,319 in 2019.
According to district documents, between those months in 2020, 508 teachers have resigned and 126 have retired. In 2019, those numbers were 527 and 66, respectively.
An important distinction to note is the number of separations in 2020 has been higher than 2019 in every month since August.
But some parents say they need their kids inside the building.
Lindsey Lear is a parent to three AISD kids, two of which have dyslexia. With a full time job of her own, Lear said she hopes the teachers and district find a resolution that won’t set the school, or students, back.
“Kids need to be in school, they need full time school and they need a normal environment to feel good,” Lear said. “I feel like a lot of the teachers that I’ve spoke to want to be back in the class and want to be with the students.”
While many teachers KXAN have spoken to agree, they want to be back in the classroom to work with their students, they say they’ll only do so when it is safe.
“To be forced back with so few kids on campus, it seems like a kind of strange way to push teachers out the door for a very permanent fix for a short term problem, considering vaccines are on the horizon,” one teacher said.