Back to School Blues

by Amy Beck

Across the country, teachers are facing a difficult decision between returning to the classrooms and potentially putting their lives at risk or foregoing their career.  This is an especially scary situation for our immunocompromised educators.

What options do teachers have?

First, if a teacher has a disability (like diabetes or cystic fibrosis), he or she can make a formal request for accommodations.[1]  COVID-19 and stressors surrounding the pandemic may also exacerbate the symptoms and flare-ups of teachers’ preexisting mental health conditions (such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder).  While these disabilities may not be visible, they are just as real, and teachers are still entitled to accommodations.

Types of accommodations may include:

  • Remote instruction (if it is being offered);
  • Being moved to a different classroom with better ventilation (i.e. windows that can open and close);
  • Being allowed to teach outdoors (weather permitting);
  • Being provided an air filtration system;
  • Being allowed to join meetings remotely (even while physically at school);
  • Enhanced classroom cleaning;
  • Using plexiglass to ensure minimum distance between the teacher and students;
  • A leave of absence;
  • Ensuring every person in the classroom (including students) is wearing a mask (and if a student cannot, reassigning them); and
  • Providing PPE like masks and gloves.

This is not an exhaustive list of accommodations and accommodations vary by situation and position.  For example, accommodations that may be available for a high school P.E. teacher might not be the same as those available for a second-grade teacher.

Schools are not required to provide accommodations that cause an “undue hardship.”  For an undue hardship to exist, the school must conduct an individualized assessment of current circumstances that show a specific reasonable accommodation would cause the school significant difficulty or expense.  General concerns are not enough.

Teachers may also be entitled to medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) if they contract the virus or they have another serious health condition that causes them to miss work.  FMLA leave is available to teachers who have been employed for at least a year and have worked at least 1,250 hours in the 12 months prior to the start of leave.  It is important to remember that while the FMLA protects your job, leave is not paid, and schools can require teachers to use their paid sick leave while on FMLA.

We support our teachers and we are here for you.  If you have any questions, give us a call.

Stay safe and mask up!

Amy Beck is one of our Iowa attorneys, specializing in employment litigation and civil rights.  Her mother is also an elementary school teacher, so this topic is very important to her.

[1] However, if a teacher’ COVID-19 concerns are because someone in his or her home has a disability, schools are not obligated to provide accommodations.

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