AUSTIN (KXAN) — Education Austin, the union that represents teachers and staff in the Austin Independent School District, filed a grievance Monday on behalf of 127 educators who were denied COVID-19 medical accommodations for the upcoming spring semester.
AISD has denied more than 1,000 medical accommodation requests by teachers and staff who’d rather teach remotely instead of returning to the classroom for the spring semester.
Even those who had medical requests granted for the fall semester, and still have the same ailments and health issues, have been denied requests and will be forced to return to the classroom.
Initially, teachers and staff who were denied accommodations could not appeal decisions or offer more context as to why they wanted to work remotely. While that has since changed, the district has not overturned any of the appeals, KXAN found.
At last count, 74 AISD employees filed appeals with the district but AISD denied them a second time. None were overturned.
“We firmly believe that the accommodations need to continue. They were well-founded. The accommodations were well-thought out 8 to 9 weeks ago from the fall and we should move forward. COVID is worsening. Why would you lighten it up? Why would you lessen the accommodations?” said Education Austin President Ken Zarifis.
At last count on Dec. 9, there had been 1,280 accommodation requests submitted to the district, and 1,111 of them were denied with 75 approved. AISD Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde said teachers can ask for more personal protective equipment and room renovations to allow for better social distancing, and more than 200 employees have asked for those.
The district released this statement after several Austin ISD teachers contacted KXAN when their accommodations were being denied:
“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.“Austin Independent School District
Annie Dragoo, who teaches theater at Austin High School, says she had existing Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations prior to the pandemic. Despite suffering from a rare heart and auto-immune disease, Dragoo said she was able to successfully teach her classes virtually in the fall and had several students nominated for national awards in the performing arts.
She spoke to the gravity of her own situation heading into the spring.
“It’s a hard time when teachers are updating their wills before the Christmas holiday,” Dragoo said. “I’m not causing an undue hardship on anyone.”
Tiger Hanner, a legal representative representing Education Austin, said the district “failed to follow the law” when assessing each medical accommodation, and that every employer has a duty to provide a safe space for their employee to work.
“Other school districts have implemented much more rigorous processes in analyzing these things. They followed the law. They followed the [Americans with Disabilities Act]. They examined what the teacher does, how it impacts their class, reviewing their medical information. None of that happened here. It was all arbitrary. And that’s a huge problem,” Hanner said.
KXAN has reached out to Austin ISD about these new grievances and the process for moving forward. This story will be updated when we receive a response.
An automatic reply from AISD’s communication staff said Austin ISD is closed December 22 through January 1 for winter break. The district returns to its normal business hours on Monday, January 4.