Schools need teachers and staff to report for work if they are going to open their doors.
So what happens when dozens of educators who don’t feel safe returning because of COVID-19 show up with a doctor’s note and a request not to return in person? And who will teach when educators can’t come to work because their child’s school or daycare abruptly closes?
The Connecticut State Department of Education is hearing from districts that between 25% to 30% of the state’s teachers are requesting not to physically return to school.
How state and local officials respond to these staffing challenges could spell the difference between school buildings opening or classes going online, and a host of factors and solutions are helping districts take up the slack.
For starters, fear there would be a hoard of teacher retirements in 2020 was unfounded. This summer, the number of teachers who typically retire was down 14%. While 1,154 teachers and school staff usually retire each summer, just 994 did so this year.
Many districts also have a significant share of students planning to learn remotely, which will help accommodate teachers who want to stay home. In Hartford, where 58% of the children plan to attend classes from their homes, 31 educators with concerns about returning in person have been given the nod to teach remotely. In New Haven, where half the children were planning to learn from home even when the district’s plan was to open their doors, 90 staff members requested to stay home. The district ultimately decided not to reopen.
State intervention will also help.
The administration of Gov. Ned Lamont has routed $50 million of the federal aid the state received from the CARES Act to help cover the additional academic staffing costs. Nearly all that funding is going to the state’s most under-resourced school districts, like Hartford, which is set to get $9.4 million for staffing.
The State Board of Education also approved giving local school officials more flexibility over hiring and deploying teachers. For example, a high school science teacher can now teach elementary school, if the district and teacher agree to the move. A gym teacher or reading specialist could also take on their own class. And paraeducators who have worked in schools for at least 20 months could be assigned a class.
“We need to have a workforce that is prepared to greet our students when they come into school,” Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona told the board in August. “I just want to be as frank as possible: this is to try and keep the doors open. If we don’t have enough teachers we can’t open the doors. That’s the bottom line: it’s not going to be safe enough. We can’t just take a group of 20 students and put them in a class of another 20 students.”
Reassigning staff or having a paraeducator (teachers who help students with special needs) teach is preferable to the district hiring a substitute, said several state board of education members.
“We are in an emergency situation, and we’re going to be well down on teachers. So I am wholeheartedly supporting this because I think it will help us tremendously,” said Donald Harris, a state board member and former teacher and principal in Bloomfield.
“We have many excellent paraeducators out there that perhaps are in a program to become a teacher, and this certainly will give them the opportunity to use their very good educational skills with our students first, versus bringing in a substitute that perhaps doesn’t know those children at all,” said Erin Benham, a retired teacher from Meriden and former president of the teachers’ union there. “I think it’s important that we give the flexibility to districts and that districts … use their in-house personnel.”
The Department of Education was unable to say how may how many emergency certifications districts have sought from the state because it’s a new system they’re still working to track quickly.
What’s a doctor’s note worth?
In Fairfield, about 100 of the district’s 1,000 teachers have requested a change in work conditions to protect them from getting COVID-19.
“Many of our non-certified staff, including paraprofessionals, have also requested accommodations and many of those folks are resigning,” said Colleen Deasy, the district’s executive director of personnel and legal services.
In Southington, fewer than six staff members actually qualified for leave out of 30 or 40 inquiries, the superintendent said. In Wallingford, 78 staff have investigated whether the Family Medical Leave Act or Americans with Disabilities Act would qualify them to take leave, but only four have been granted and six were given permission to work from home.
“We continue to seek non-certified members of our team, but we are confident that we are ready to reopen,” said Wallingford Superintendent Salvatore Menzo.
Glastonbury’s district has 35 teachers working from home, according to superintendent Alan Bookman. He said they are using all of their support teachers — reading, librarians, math specialists and language arts specialists — to help teach classes at the elementary level, but the big question is whether they will have enough substitutes when they need them.
Medical exemption a tricky subject
Who qualifies for a medical exemption from returning to the physical classroom has been a hot topic in recent weeks.
A spokesman for the state education department said the agency is leaving it up to local districts to implement federal laws on exempting employees and declined to say whether the department plans to issue such guidance in the future.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that those over age 65 are at higher risk for serious illness if they get COVID-19. Those with heart conditions, diabetes, asthma, who are pregnant, or who smoke are at higher risk, too.
An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates nearly one in four K-12 educators have pre-existing health conditions that put them at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19.
But just because someone is at higher risk, doesn’t mean a school district must allow them to stay home.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires districts to provide reasonable accommodations to staff with disabilities unless doing so would cause undue hardship and significant difficulty or expense. Instead, districts can offer other special accommodations that will allow staff to continue teaching in-person, like providing extra high-end protective gear.
Mark Sommaruga, an education lawyer at the firm Pullman & Comley, said that deciding who legally qualifies for accommodations is based on individual circumstances.
The law “obviously says that districts should have some flexibility with leave policies,” he said. “There’s nothing specific on the state level where the state is saying, you must do this, or you must do that.”
Sommaruga said there is no requirement for districts to offer a remote teaching position and that being present in the classroom is an essential function of a teacher’s job.
“Now that doesn’t mean the conversation ends,” he said. “It’s supposed to be an interactive process between the employer and the employee. And, you know, obviously, if the person needs [an accommodation], the question becomes what other accommodations can be provided that may be able to make the class safer, or may otherwise deal with the concerns of the teacher?”
Federal family leave laws allow employees with health conditions to take leave when complications may arise if they have COVID-19 or they need to care for family members with a serious health condition. But if an employee wants to take leave to avoid being exposed to COVID-19, that would not be protected under the FMLA, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Qualified individuals with disabilities are also entitled to unscheduled and unpaid leave under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
But under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), certain employers are required to provide employees with paid sick leave and extended family and medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19. An employee is qualified to leave under FFCRA if:
- their state or local region has a mandated quarantine or isolation order
- a doctor advised them to self-quarantine
- they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms
- they are caring for an individual who has been ordered to self-quarantine
- they are caring for a child whose school or child care facility is closed due to COVID-19
- they are experiencing other conditions set by the Secretary of Health and Human Services
The state’s largest teachers’ union — the Connecticut Education Association – insists teachers need more options.
“I think we have not done a good enough job as a state in terms of preparing to accommodate these teachers,” said CEA Executive Director Don Williams, adding that students who are at risk medically are accommodated and told they can learn remotely, but the same isn’t true for educators. “Because of the lack of accommodations for teachers in many parts of the state, I think that you’re seeing teachers look to other alternatives, whether they can take a leave of absence in some cases, teachers are choosing to retire … The last thing that we want is for schools to serve as a way that the infection spreads and spikes upward in Connecticut.”
Legal Director for the State Department of Education Jessa Mirtle told lawmakers Tuesday that the agency is working on additional guidance to provide support for educators, and to ensure that they’ve provided proper feedback to schools and districts about options for teachers. She explained that this will include some information about the possibility for teachers to stay home if their child’s school is closed.
“We’re working with our partners, the Department of Labor to discuss any other sorts of supports that the state may have,” Mirtle said. “Whether it be through shared work programs and, if necessary, support for unemployment and paid leave for individuals who, you know, may choose to reduce their hours or have their hours reduced as a result of the necessity to care for someone.”
Mirtle said since there continues to be questions about providing support for educators, the education department reached out to the labor department about protections for teachers. Mirtle said this could include “voluntary flexibility” for districts that feel they can allow that for teachers who may not be legally covered as well.
A path to opening the doors
The Capital Region Education Council (CREC) – a district that draws students from Hartford and its surrounding towns – was able to accommodate requests from 100 teachers to work remotely and teach the 3,000 children — 40% of the district’s students — who chose to learn remotely.
CREC Superintendent Tim Sullivan said it was clear early on that the district would have staff who are at risk, or the health of a loved one was at risk, who had the right to use their FMLA or other leave opportunities.
“If we had 50 of those hundred teachers staying home and not working, it would have created more of a staffing crisis for us,” Sullivan said. “So having them home, working with the students that wanted to be home, worked out well for us.”
CREC replaced these teachers in the classroom by shifting over reading coaches and associate instructors — a path paved by the state board of education.
Getting enough staff in place was one of several reasons CREC postponed the start of school from Aug. 31 to the second week of September. Sullivan said they not only wanted to make sure they hired enough additional teachers, but also had time to train them.
Sullivan called it an “all hands on deck kind of mentality.” Once the district made those changes and started to fill in vacancies classrooms with the supplemental staff, administrators realized they still needed about 30 external substitutes to help with in-person learning heading into the school year. But after having a job fair last month, Sullivan said, the district was in good shape and still plans to reopen Sept. 9.