Volunteer Program May Help Teachers With COVID-19 Risks

Union and district close to finalizing a program allowing more teachers at some campuses to stay home

AISD community members delivered reopening questions to AISD's headquarters on Sat., Sept. 26, as part of Education Austin's community car caravan (Photo by John Anderson)

With nearly 1,000 Austin ISD employees having been denied medical accommodations for the spring semester, the Education Aus­tin staff union and the district are working toward a solution, in which individual campuses can decide how many teachers they need to be present in person.

For the fall semester, accommodations were granted to teachers who were immunocompromised or at high risk of contracting COVID-19, letting them teach from home while their in-person students were monitored by other personnel on campus. After more than 1,200 such accommodations were approved for the fall and only 66 denied, the numbers for the spring semester have flipped, with only 49 of 1,156 requests approved so far. "Only those at the highest risk who could best fulfill their duties remotely would be eligible for remote work, in order to best support teaching and learning for students," a staff FAQ on the AISD website states.

Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said the union and district are close to finalizing a pilot program that would allow many more teachers at some campuses to stay home, focusing especially on those with health risks or with family members who are at high risk. Under the system, healthier teachers would be asked to come to campus and supervise on-campus students for their medically compromised co-workers, in addition to teaching their own students in person. The system relies on continued high virtual attendance – only around 25% of AISD students have chosen to return to campus this fall, although numbers are higher at elementary schools.

Zarifis said the pilot program has been discussed at Bowie High, Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, Burnet Middle School, Cunningham Elementary, and Padrón Element­ary. The district would inform campuses before winter break and begin to implement the pilot system in the spring. If it's effective, Education Austin hopes to quickly expand the system to other schools. "I don't want to go five campuses at a time [in the spring]," Zarifis said.

Education Austin suggested the volunteer system before it became clear how few accommodations were being granted, but it would have positive consequences for many affected teachers. These include veteran middle school English teacher Frank Web­ster, who underwent open-heart surgery two years ago for a condition that puts him at high COVID-19 risk. Webster taught from home this fall and was shocked when his spring accommodation was denied.

Though he's appealing the decision, "there are some difficult decisions to be made," he said. But he hopes the volunteer system will help him and teachers in similar situations, although the uncertainty has been difficult. "I hope that AISD listens to the teachers," Webster said. "Here we are in December, and a lot of us are not really sure what's gonna happen in January."

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