Austin ISD: No medical accommodation denials have been overturned despite ongoing appeals

Education

AUSTIN (KXAN) — For 33 years, elementary school teacher James Karabaic has been faithfully serving the Austin Independent School District.

But only six months from his planned retirement in June, Karabaic says his career might come to an abrupt, and undesired, end.

Karabaic, who has a history of respiratory infections, a cardiac condition and high blood pressure, has been denied a medical accommodation to work remotely in the spring. Karabaic is one of 1,111 employees whom the district has also denied.

“Some of my conditions were not on [AISD’s] list. And my reply to them was well, ‘they may not be on your list, but they are on my doctor’s list. And he’s a medical expert,'” Karabaic said.

PETITION: Help Teacher Continue to Work Remotely During Covid!

A petition calling for Karabaic to retain his job and continue to work remotely has garnered wide support, picking up nearly 1,500 signatures in less than a week. In fact, Karabaic, who teaches 2nd grade at Patton Elementary, said his entire class of 21 students have all elected to stay home and learn virtually over the spring, their families also in support of his preference. Thus, a policy requiring him to report to campus would needlessly put him at risk of exposure to COVID-19, he says.

“It’s really clear that there is no need for Jim to be in the classroom,” said Education Austin President Ken Zarifis. “He can serve his students, he can take care of his kids, he can provide education in the remote environment that he and the district have created. So I think it makes great educational sense, it makes great medical sense… and why not respect a 33-year veteran?”

Karabaic’s class of kids are not alone. Preliminary results from a recent survey distributed by the district shows 66% of the more than 9,000 families surveyed said they would continue to learn remotely off-campus in the spring. That number jumps to 75% if Austin Public Health officials were to move the city into Stage 5 Risk Based Guidelines.

Elizalde told trustees on Monday that after speaking to APH officials, the city is moving in that direction after recognizing the current positivity rate, the new cases in last 14 days, the average cases in last seven days, the average reproduction estimate, the 14-day change rate and the seven-day moving average of hospitalizations all increase.

For months, the Austin ISD Human Capital Department has been warning employees that those without an approved accommodation must report to work in person.

Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde has been vocal in asking employees to instead request alternative accommodations, which might make them feel more comfortable on campus. She says if an employee would like upgraded PPE, room renovations to allow for extra spacing or a smaller class size, these requests can be granted. The district reports 216 employees have taken the district up on this option to request alternative accommodations.

“We are going to continue to work on seeing what types of alternates or approvals we are able to work through,” Elizalde told trustees Monday night.

But most appeals for medical accommodations have been denied unless a new medical condition was presented, which was not previously disclosed to the Benefits Review Committee.

Elizalde says if a dispute is unsatisfied after contacting and working with the human capital department, there are additional instructions employees can follow to continue their appeals process.

“All employees are expected to report to work in person unless they have a remote work accommodation for the spring. We continue to work with Education Austin to identify opportunities for flexibility.”

Austin Independent School District

As of Wednesday, Dec. 9, 1,280 requests for accommodations had been submitted, 75 had been approved, 1,111 have been denied and 94 are pending review.

The district reports 74 requests for further review have been submitted, but no denials have been overturned. The Benefits Review Committee is reviewing additional requests this week.

Karabaic said there are few options for him left at this point. While wanting to continue his final months and finish his career with his classroom of 21 virtual learners, he says he would rather retire than report to campus in-person for the entire semester.

He concedes, however, that he is willing to work with the district and continue working part of that time to ensure a smooth transition. His greatest concern is the disruption that would cause his students if they are once again shuffled into a new classroom with a new teacher.

“It’s been a stressful year for these kids. I feel sorry for them,” Karabaic said. “But there are reasons why their families want to be in remote. And I feel like I’ve been able to provide that service and I want to continue to be able to do that to them.”

Reach KXAN’s Education Reporter Alex Caprariello by email at alexc@kxan.com or by phone at 512-703-5365, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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