Many teachers who are at increased risk for severe COVID-19 illness have long feared going back into school buildings.
But as district leaders try to reopen buildings amid the ongoing pandemic, they’re often forced to weigh requests for medical accommodations with the need to staff classrooms.
This high-stakes balancing act is currently unfolding in the Austin Independent school district. In the fall, about 1,200 high-risk staff members there were approved to work remotely. But they had to resubmit their requests for accommodation for the spring semester—and so far, just 93 staff members have been approved to continue working from home.
Leslie Stephens, the interim chief of human capital for Austin ISD, said that the district has had to significantly tighten its accommodation process to help resume more normal operations. Now, only staff members who are at the highest risk for serious illness, based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, can work from home.
Those who aren’t eligible will be offered other accommodations, Stephens said, like N95 masks, face shields, plexiglass around their desks, larger classrooms, or the ability to leave work a few minutes early to avoid large groups of people.
Still, many educators are panicked about returning to school buildings, said Ken Zarifis, the president of Education Austin. The local union has filed grievances on behalf of 127 staff members, asking the district to overturn their medical accommodation denials. The district will begin reviewing those when employees return to work on Jan. 4.
Annie Dragoo, who teaches musical theater and music appreciation at Austin High School, is among those teachers expected to return to campus despite having requested a medical accommodation. (The district said it cannot comment on Dragoo’s specific situation.) Dragoo has cancer and a heart condition that required two surgeries in December. She told her story to EdWeek reporter Madeline Will.
In 2013, I was on a field trip with students. I was walking across the campus of the University of Nebraska, and I collapsed with cardiac arrest. My daughters were with me—one was 6, and one was 16—and they called the ambulance. I ended up being on life support for five days. I went back to teaching in the fall, but I had developed congestive heart failure. That cardiac arrest damaged my mitral valve, so I had to have a scheduled open-heart surgery. The next summer in 2014, I had another cardiac arrest immediately after they replaced the valve, and I ended up on the life support machine again. They did three open-heart surgeries in five days to try to fix the problem.
My doctors had never understood why a 43-year-old woman collapsed with cardiac arrest or had these issues until this past March. They diagnosed me with a rare heart disease called cardiac sarcoidosis. It is an auto-immune disease where your body attacks itself and white blood cells settle in your heart. It causes cardiac arrest and ventricular tachycardia. To treat it, I have to be given high doses of the steroid prednisone and low-dose chemotherapy meds. I’m immunocompromised.
In 2016, I also was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, which most doctors believe is caused by over-exposure to radiation. Although my thyroid was removed, the cancer markers remain in my blood. My endocrinologist is treating this, but to be cancer free, the treatment may take up to 10 years. I’m under constant care of the doctors to make sure the cancer is suppressed, but sometimes the cancer meds don’t agree with the heart meds. It has been a struggle being on so many different kinds of medications, having heart failure, and trying to balance it all.
I applied for teaching remotely for the fall semester, which was granted. I’ve been teaching from my dining room table every day. We’re supposed to be up and singing and dancing and acting and actually doing theater, not just sitting at our computers. So that’s been really hard. I’ve had to adjust, like all teachers this year. We’re all learning and adjusting and trying to figure out how to best serve our students remotely. It feels like we work 150 percent of the time, rather than just 100 percent of the time.
We’re trying to find new ways to bring theater to life from behind a computer screen. I just try and take what I normally teach and figure out how I can present it in a way that will challenge the kids to become better artists. I have to rely a lot on technology and on recording. Instead of me watching them tap dance after I’ve taught them a sequence, they have to record it and send it in. When they sing, they have to record it and send it in. We cannot sing together because there’s a lag on Zoom. I rely on professional theater recordings of plays that we can watch together from home.
Nine of my students qualified for national competition, all virtually. One, because I helped her prepare her college scholarship audition, won a scholarship for costume design. I feel like this was a success for a virtual year. I don’t think that being remote has stopped me from doing my job, and it hasn’t stopped my students from being successful. I would much prefer to not be in a pandemic and be in my theater. I would much prefer that. I’m just not healthy enough for that right now.
In August, my defibrillator went off while I was driving. My then-14-year-old daughter grabbed the wheel and got us to safety. I was rushed to the ER and admitted to the hospital because the heart failure caused my potassium to drop, which caused ventricular tachycardia, a life-threatening heart rhythm. I taught the first week of school from the Heart Hospital in Austin. Then, the next week, my body retained so much fluid that I had to receive diuresis at the cardiac heart failure clinic. I taught from there as well.
On Dec. 15, I had a four-hour surgery called cardiac ablation. The goal was to correct arrhythmias caused by the cardiac sarcoidosis. Only one arrhythmia could be corrected, so the doctor decided to do a second surgery the next day. Right before the surgeries, I was on Zoom with my students. Some of them were submitting questions about their final projects, so I was answering questions and talking to them from the hospital. I mean, being remote allows you to teach from wherever, right? I didn’t want to teach from the hospital, but that’s what needed to be done.
To reapply for working remotely in the spring, I got all the paperwork that the district required—a short description of what I was asking for, the condition that required it, and a letter from my doctor—and I provided that before the deadline. And then on Nov. 30, at 5:15 pm, I got an email from the district, and it just said, “denied.” It didn’t give me a reason or anything, and there was no process for an appeal. I immediately emailed the district and said, “Is this a mistake?” And I got no reply. I went to Facebook, and I wrote a letter and posted it, and it kind of exploded. Everybody started reaching out. That’s when I found out there were over 1,100 people who were denied accommodations for the spring semester.
Within a week of all the news stories, the district realized they had to offer an appeal process, according to the Americans With Disabilities Act—there has to be continuing dialogue. My doctor rewrote his letter and tried to give more detail. I had two letters from doctors, one who prescribes the low-dose chemo meds and my cardiologist who takes care of the auto-immune heart disease. I wrote a long letter explaining everything. I turned in more proof, and then I didn’t hear anything for more than a week. I sent it all in again, and on the last day of school before the holidays, my appeal was denied. The district gave three reasons why they denied me.
The first reason was that my condition did not meet a high-risk status, which is laughable, because it’s clearly listed in the top tier by the CDC. The second reason was that my position was unique and that nobody else could perform my duty, which is a joke because the school district has never considered fine arts essential, ever. They cut our programs and take money away, but no, never did they consider art to be essential. Now they’re telling me it’s so essential, not even the other two theater teachers can do it, which is ridiculous. And then the third reason was that I could not perform 100 percent of my duties remotely and be successful, which again I’ve been doing since March.
My husband, who also teaches at Austin High School and with whom I share an office, was given a letter by my doctor that said he should stay home because he lives with someone who’s high risk. The district denied him twice as well. We’ll just come up with strategies that will keep us safe, and we’ll try to figure out what to do.
I did file a grievance with our teachers’ union, but the district has not acknowledged it or said anything about it. It’s holiday break, and I’m left with no recourse but to show up on Jan. 5, the first day of the semester. I can use my accrued leave, but someone like me uses all of their leave every year. Last year, because of the pandemic, I actually didn’t use all my leave, so I have some days that I can take, but it’s only going to end up being a couple of weeks. I can’t afford to take a leave of absence or take the short-term disability insurance because it’s not even a third of my salary.
I’m capable of teaching. I can do my job. I just can’t do it in that building without being at high risk. I’ve looked at all the possibilities. My doctor said, “You shouldn’t be in the classroom, even if you have on a mask.” I have alumni who chipped in and purchased for me high-tech PPE—it looks like a space suit and it has an air filter fan inside. I feel very blessed to have alumni who cared enough to reach out and do that for me.
Just the uncertainty of being around people who, outside of school, you know nothing about—it’s kind of scary. Our school has the highest COVID rate in the whole district, and not because of the way we do things on campus. Students are going to parties and coming back and infecting people. I only have a handful of kids who attend in person. The majority of my students are at home. I don’t understand—if the majority of my kids are home, why can’t I stay at home, and my on-campus students sit in my coworkers’ classrooms? The other theater teachers volunteered to do that.
I’ve been in the Austin Independent school district since 2003. I’ve always felt lucky to have a job in the best place for me. I love my coworkers, my administration. My wonderful principal has told me that she is sorry that I must go through all of this and wants to help me any way she can. To have the district deny me has been very discouraging. The first thing I did was update my will, and I’m not the only teacher who’s done that.
When you teach an art like theater, you don’t do it for the money. You do it because you love it, and you love the students. If I could be in person in a healthy world, I would be in person. I’m just not healthy enough to do that. But I’m going to have to, because I can’t continue to live in Austin and survive financially without a job.
Update: After Dragoo told her story to Education Week, she received the first dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. Austin ISD offered the vaccine to Dragoo and other staff members who are older than 65 or who have high-risk medical conditions, in accordance with Texas’ vaccine prioritization plan.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as High Risk for COVID-19 And Forced Back to Class