As millions across the country await the fate of the 2020-2021 school year, there may be no group more invested in the outcome than educators. While school districts across the country determine how and when they will re-open, teachers are left wondering how these decisions will affect both their ability to effectively teach and their physical/mental health.
Contrary to what some politicians may think, school openings are a local issue. Each local school district within each state will have to decide based on the recommendations of their local health officials if it’s safe for teachers and students to return to the classroom.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have offered guidelines to help local communities determine if and how schools should resume. There are six criteria they recommend before schools should re-open.
- The number of newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases should be improving
- The number of hospital visits associated with “COVID-like” symptoms
- The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests
- The capacity of local hospitals to treat patients
- The ability to test effectively and efficiently
Unfortunately, with the new surge of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks 43 states don’t even meet the first requirement, according to the National Education Association (NEA).
What Are Teachers Rights?
There is nothing to prevent a school district from opening if they don’t meet the suggested CDC criteria. That would require teachers to report to work. However, as Parentology reported earlier this year, “According to federal statistics, 29% of teachers are 50 or older, putting them in the high-risk category for COVID-19. That statistic does not include support staff like bus drivers, custodial staff, school nurses or counselors.” The Kaiser Family Foundation also reported last week that approximately 1.5 million, or 25% of teachers, are at a higher risk of serious complications if they contract COVID-19.
“The main thing you should know is that you have rights,” said NEA staff counsel Keira McNett in a webinar this week.
Teachers that fall into a high-risk category may be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If they fear that their health is at risk, they have a few options. Teachers can ask to be re-assigned to a position that has less contact with others, they can request a remote position if distance learning is an option, they can also request additional protective equipment and increased cleaning and sanitation of their work spaces. If these are not an option, teachers can choose to take a temporary leave of absence.
Unfortunately, if a teacher is not sick or in a high-risk group but lives with someone who is compromised the ADA will not cover them. In this case, the NEA recommends teachers utilize the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave to take care of family members that are ill.
While the CDC has outlined practices and procedures to help students and teachers stay safe upon the re-opening of school they caution, “These considerations are meant to supplement—not replace—any state, local, territorial, or tribal health and safety laws, rules, and regulations with which schools must comply.”
COVID-19 numbers are changing on a daily basis, making the decision of when to re-open local schools a difficult one for many communities. Many districts have already delayed start dates to allow for additional training and possibly the gathering of more statistics around the virus. Some districts have already opted for virtual school for the short-term and many more have not yet decided. That leaves teachers unsure of how or if they will return to work.