EEOC says districts don’t have to accommodate teachers worried about COVID-19 as some resign

EEOC says districts don’t have to accommodate teachers worried about COVID-19 as some resign

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Some teachers have resigned from their jobs and risk losing their certifications to teach in the future because of their discomfort with possibly returning to their classrooms to teach students face to face.

“It was really, really hard to walk away and to walk away from my students,” former Berkeley County teacher Rebecca Michaud said.

Michaud was a social studies teacher at College Park Middle School until Sept. 4 when she formally resigned from her job as an educator.

She said she struggled to find a balance between keeping her family safe and continuing in her profession.

“The only response I have gotten was to request my resignation letter and remind me that technically I had broken a contract with South Carolina, and I knew all of that before I submitted my resignation. I felt like I at least knew what the consequences were, and I was wiling to accept them because only a dire situation would make me walk away. Obviously, I don’t want to lose my teaching license for two years, especially with South Carolina being critically short of teachers, but I did think it was necessary to focus on my family during this time,” Michaud said.

She waited until just days before the school year started to make her decision.

“I wasn’t going to walk away until I had all of the information, and unfortunately, I didn’t get all of the information until the very last teacher workday. And part of that information was, hey, eventually we are going to have to have you teach students face to face…nobody had really said that to me until Friday morning, the day I resigned.” Michaud said. “I have to give a lot of credit to my school. They did a really great job with trying to work with me to only give me blended or virtual students…I think it was inevitable I was going to have to teach students face to face, and I really did not feel safe, and I did not feel comfortable with that.”

The Berkeley County School District sent a survey to 3,269 teachers in July. It gave teachers four options: return to the classroom for in-person instruction with no accommodations, be willing to provide distance learning instruction but request an accommodation to provide such instruction at a physical school building because of a pregnancy or disability, be willing to provide distance learning instruction but request an accommodation to provide such instruction at a remote location other than a school or district facility because of pregnancy or a disability, or resign.

Some teachers did not respond to the survey. Michaud said she refused to select one of the options because the district did not provide one that was suitable for her situation.

“It was either they [sic] you had a medical issue, or you agreed to teach face to face,” Michaud said.

According to BCSD spokesperson Katie Tanner, 171 teachers requested accommodations related to the delivery of in-person instruction, and 480 teachers requested an accommodation of teaching via distance instruction. Following the submittal of the survey results, 74 teachers rescinded their accommodation request and indicated that they were willing to provide in-person instruction without accommodation.

“The employees who requested an accommodation were asked to submit information to determine whether their medical conditions qualify as a “disability” as that term is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, 359 teachers failed to provide adequate medical information to conduct an assessment of whether they were legally entitled to an accommodation. BCSD has followed up with these employees on multiple occasions in an effort to obtain sufficient information,” Tanner said in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the teacher survey results.

“Notwithstanding the fact that BCSD has no legal obligation to provide accommodations based on medical conditions of its employees' family members or other circumstances not related to their personal disability or pregnancy, school principals have been encouraged to take their individual teachers' particular circumstances, including the medical condition of their family members, into consideration in developing their re-opening plans, schedules, and class rosters. As stated above, this is ongoing and interactive process, and BCSD is committed to working in good faith to give our teachers reasonable accommodations to ensure that they can perform their jobs safely," Tanner said.

Many teachers requested accommodations because of concerns about their family members who have medical conditions. Tanner said the accommodations review process was focused on the district’s legal obligations.

“For those employees who requested accommodation and submitted sufficient information to review their requests, accommodations are being determined based on the employees' eligibility; employees' medical condition; number of teachers entitled to accommodations; number of students returning for in-school instruction; number of teachers available to have more in-school students based on grade level/subject matter. Because each teacher and each school is different, our determinations are based on a case-by-case basis. Although our review process has been focused on BCSD’s legal obligations to provide accommodations, we also understand that some employees desire accommodations based on circumstances that are not related to a personal disability or pregnancy. For example, many teachers who requested an accommodation in their survey response did so based on medical conditions of their family members,” Tanner said.

According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers have no legal obligation to provide accommodations based on the conditions of other family members.

Is an employee entitled to an accommodation under the ADA in order to avoid exposing a family member who is at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to an underlying medical condition?

No. Although the ADA prohibits discrimination based on association with an individual with a disability, that protection is limited to disparate treatment or harassment. The ADA does not require that an employer accommodate an employee without a disability based on the disability related needs of a family member or other person with whom she is associated. For example, an employee without a disability is not entitled under the ADA to telework as an accommodation in order to protect a family member with a disability from potential COVID-19 exposure. Of course, an employer is free to provide such flexibilities if it chooses to do so. An employer choosing to offer additional flexibilities beyond what the law requires should be careful not to engage in disparate treatment on a protected EEO basis.

Michaud said, when faced with the possibility that she would have to eventually teach students face to face, she could no longer risk her family’s health and her own child’s education.

“As far as I know, I was never given an option to work remotely or to work from home so that I could at least try to balance that and helping my child. The only option was to work from the school,” Michaud said. “I was supposed to be teaching virtually, but I think it was inevitable that I was going to be teaching kids face to face at some point. Even in a school environment, working in the building, I can’t avoid students. No matter how I’m teaching I’ll be interacting with students in some way.”

Michaud said she was really concerned about bringing home the coronavirus to her family, especially after watching several members of her immediate family go through COVID-19 this summer.

“It was a really hard time for my family. I was terrified I would bring it home,” Michaud said.

She also was concerned about how her six-year old son would handle blended learning.

“My husband works from home and was going to help him, but it’s just too much for him to work full time and be responsible for our son’s learning. I wanted to be here to make sure he gets the critical skills he needs this year. I felt like that was my biggest responsibility," Michaud said.

Copyright 2020 WCSC. All rights reserved.