Monday, July 20, 2020

Coronavirus Update 7-20-2020: How do you reopen schools without teachers?

We want to reopen the schools. Everybody wants it. The moms want it, the dads want it, the kids want it. It’s time to do it.

It's sort of true that everyone wants schools to reopen. President Trump's message omits one key word—safely. Everybody wants the schools safely to reopen. And one of the current coronavirus topic du jour is what safely reopening schools looks like. No matter where you fall on the debate between the CDC and President Trump, there remains one issue that isn't getting nearly enough attention—the teachers.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has been making the media rounds telling anyone who will listen that Trump's demand to reopen schools is "unconscionable." She's also indicated that her union has created a roadmap for teachers with underlying medical issues to request reasonable accommodations under the ADA. 

If I have an underlying health issue, can I decline to be considered an “essential employee” or demand other reasonable accommodations? How does the Americans with Disabilities Act come into play here? 

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities so long as the accommodation does not place an undue hardship on the business. Some underlying health issues that place an individual at high risk during the pandemic may qualify as a disability necessitating reasonable accommodations by the employer. Some examples of reasonable accommodations include providing non-latex gloves to employees with latex allergies; providing additional protective gear such as a mask or respirator; permitting telework; and/or permitting the use of paid or unpaid leave.

Pay close attention to that last phrase—"permitting the use of paid or unpaid leave." Reopening schools is great, but if there aren't enough teachers available to teach, any reopening plan is DOA. You can be sure that a significant number of teachers will be seeking reasonable accommodations. 

And the ADA is just one potential roadblock to schools reopening for in-person instruction. The other roadblock in the right of teachers to engage in protected concerted activity. In other words, they could simply refuse to return or walk off the job in the name of safety. Indeed, over 67,000 people have already signed this online petition pledging not to "return to campus this fall until our counties report no new cases of COVID-19 for at least 14 consecutive days."

Simply put, if we cannot get teacher buy-in with a school reopening plan, there's no point in moving forward with said plan. I have serious concerns that school districts will be able to garner this buy-in on any wide-scale basis.

* Photo by Andy Falconer on Unsplash