Teaching Profession

After a Stillbirth, This Teacher Was Denied Paid Leave for Recovery. Here’s Her Story

By Madeline Will — January 15, 2021 6 min read
Illustration of a woman.

Already, many teachers across the country don’t have access to paid parental leave when they have a baby. But even when their district does offer paid family leave, the worst-case scenario may not be covered.

Liz O’Donnell, a teacher in the nation’s capital, delivered a stillborn baby girl on Dec. 1. The District of Columbia’s public school system denied her request for paid family leave to recuperate from childbirth, telling her to instead use her sick days or take unpaid leave. But O’Donnell argues that she should still qualify for paid family leave, since she gave birth.

The school district referred questions about O’Donnell’s situation to the D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education. A spokesman there did not respond to Education Week’s requests for comment.

D.C. does offer teachers paid family leaveit’s one of just a handful of states and districts around the nation that provide the benefit to teachers. Typically, teachers have to use sick days to have some paid time off with their newborns, and then supplement that with unpaid leave. Teachers in D.C., however, are eligible for up to eight weeks of paid time off “for the birth or placement of a child.”

It’s unclear how often paid family leave plans, particularly for teachers, cover stillbirths. But Dr. Rahul Gupta, the chief medical and health officer at the nonprofit March of Dimes, said O’Donnell’s situation is not uncommon, and when stillbirth isn’t explicitly named in a paid leave policy, “women often are left at the whims of the employer to ... provide those accommodations as they see fit.”

People who have given birth to a stillborn baby, he said, need time to heal physically and emotionally. In the United States, 1 in 160 pregnancies end in stillbirth each year.

O’Donnell, a 1st grade math and science teacher, hopes that what happened to her will shed some light on the issue. She told her story to EdWeek reporter Madeline Will.

Notice: This article contains a photo posted to Facebook of O’Donnell with her daughter, who was stillborn.

I found out I was pregnant June 2. It was definitely a surprise, but everything was great. They told me I was extremely low-risk. I even elected to have other tests done that they told me I wouldn’t need to have—but I’ve never been through this before and I wanted to make sure everything was fine. I was convinced the whole time she was a boy, so I was very surprised and very happy to find out in August that she was a girl.

It was just really easy and great until Nov. 28. I went to George Washington University Hospital because I hadn’t felt her move. It was going to be a quick checkup, and then it ended up not being a quick checkup.

I was in labor for 48 hours. My plan all along was to have an unmedicated birth, and I was really focused on still being able to do that if possible. I did it as long as I could, but there came a time when everyone said, “You might want to go the medication route,” which I had to accept. One of the reasons I had never wanted an epidural is because of a sports injury that I have in my back. The epidural aggravated scar tissue from that injury, so getting around is painful. I’m in treatment for that.

After delivering my daughter, I needed to have the placenta removed, which was done in surgery. I lost almost a liter and a half of blood.

We decided on her name in the hospital. I’ve always loved the name Aaliyah, and Aaliyah means risen or exalted one. We thought that it fit perfectly.

I was very worried leaving the hospital that something with my leave would be an issue. In D.C., you leave the hospital with just discharge papers. I kept thinking, “I don’t have a death certificate or a stillbirth certificate. So what am I going to show them?”

I had already been approved for leave through the end of the school year. I had thought, “OK, well, this will be an easy fix because I won’t need as much leave. I only need the eight weeks for postpartum recovery.” Needless to say, I was really taken aback when the response I received was, “Well, you’re no longer eligible for paid family leave, but you can just drain your sick leave or take unpaid leave from the Family Medical Leave Act.”

At first I thought maybe this person I was speaking to was confused and thought it was a miscarriage—unfortunately, nothing is covered with miscarriages, which is a whole other issue that we have. But after 20 weeks, it’s considered the birth of a child.

That’s when I started researching what qualifying events were under paid family leave, and birth of a child is a qualifying event. There’s no further definition than “birth of a child.” That’s my argument here: I did birth a child. I understand that bonding time would be eliminated. I get that. But the eight weeks for postpartum recovery for birthing a child is something that I did do, whether or not my daughter’s here.

The district told me I’m no longer eligible because I’m only caring for myself. I’m a tough Jersey girl, to be honest, and I can take a lot of crap. When that was said to me—I think about that all the time. And I hate that I think about it. But to me, that was just a reminder that yeah, I am only caring for myself, and it sucks. I don’t want this.

I have amazing friends down here that hooked me up with an employment lawyer. I said to my lawyer, “If it ends up that I’m wrong, I can somehow see past this, but I really think that they are wrong.” And my lawyer agreed. After my lawyer sent DCPS a letter, they still came back with a denial. And that’s when I decided to go public. I was just so angry.

I have taken such great care of other people’s children for the past seven years. All I’m asking for is eight weeks to take care of my body.

It has been treacherous needing to deal with this every day when I should be just focusing on my physical recovery—and then on top of that, my emotional recovery, which I haven’t even brought into this argument. It’s extremely hard for me to talk about, but I have to because I don’t want anyone after me experiencing this.

Since I have spoken out, I have had a few DCPS teachers reach out to me saying that this also happened to them, as well as women from all over. I am just in shock, and I feel so ignorant as to how many women have gone through this before me. I’m the type of woman, no matter how grief-stricken I am, I’m not going to let something slide if I know it’s wrong—and this is wrong.

I have really enjoyed teaching in our nation’s capital. The school I teach at is incredible. With the families and my colleagues, I have an incredible support system. And the last thing I would want is any highly qualified teacher to leave our nation’s capital because of the way she was treated by higher-ups. I don’t want to place all of the blame on DCPS because I understand it is a broader issue with the D.C. government. But if an employee is coming to you saying, “This is what happened to me,” empathy needs to be first and foremost.

I find it ironic that we as teachers teach empathy and kindness and care, and that is not what was shown to me. I give everything for my students, and I have taken such great care of other people’s children for the past seven years. All I’m asking for is eight weeks to take care of my body.

I’m using my sick leave now, which honestly pisses me off because I would love to use this sick leave for a second child in the future. I’m hoping that if a change is made, we can correct that, but I understand if it can’t be corrected. At least then I will have used the sick leave to try to make change. I’m trying to find the positives in this, and it’s very challenging.

But if it gets change made, and if it gets women in other states where this change also needs to be made talking ... it’s the work of Aaliyah at this point. I’m the vehicle doing it, but it’s all my daughter that’s doing this work.

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