COVID at AISD: Union Lodges Grievances as District Plays Hardball

Education Austin files over 100 grievances on behalf of teachers denied accommodations for spring semester

Outside the Liberal Arts and Science Academy on the first day AISD reopened classrooms in October (Photo by Jana Birchum)

On the first day of Austin ISD's winter break, its staff union Education Austin filed 127 grievances on behalf of teachers and other employees whose remote work request accommodations were denied for the spring, claiming that the district's process for weighing staff risks during the COVID-19 pandemic violates the Americans With Disabilities Act. However, the grievances likely won't come before the board of trustees until at least April, leaving hundreds of high-risk teachers who've been denied accommodations in a bind for the start of the spring semester, when they must report to campus, take leave, or resign.

For the just-concluded fall semester, AISD was one of the most generous school districts in Texas with accommodations, approving over 900 requests from teachers and employees whose personal health conditions, such as pregnancy, diabetes, or cancer, raised their COVID-19 risks. But for the spring semester, the script has been flipped: AISD has denied more than 1,000 medical accommodations requests from employees, approving fewer than 100.

"I've been around this district 22 years – I've never seen anything like it," Education Austin President Ken Zarifis said. "The district is not interested in medical well-being ... They're interested in their agenda, and their agenda is dangerous. It will put people in harm's way, it will shove respirators down people's throats, and it will kill people."

AISD's website states that campus safety protocols, such as wearing masks and washing hands, significantly reduced the risk for COVID, and that therefore "only those at the highest risk who could best fulfill their duties remotely would be eligible for remote work." The district is closed for winter break until Jan. 5 and could not be reached for comment.

Teachers denied included Annie Dragoo, a musical theatre teacher at Austin High School, who has cancer and a rare heart disease and is currently undergoing weekly chemotherapy. After receiving an accommodation this fall, Dragoo spent time teaching virtually from a hospital and a heart failure clinic. Still, she arranged three virtual musical performances for her classes and watched nine of her students qualify for national competitions. Dragoo said the denial of her spring accommodation came as a shock.

"I started crying. I'm a very emotional being, as I teach theatre," Dragoo said. "And then my second response was to update my will."

Education Austin plans to argue that the district's process violates the ADA by denying medical accommodations to high-risk teachers without proving those requests would cause "undue hardship" to campuses. However, by the time they make the argument in front of the board, the point may be moot, unless their grievances can be fast-tracked. Tiger Hanner, a legal representative of Education Austin, said that although he requested a shorter time frame, AISD is requiring the union to go through its existing four-level grievance process, which won't begin until after winter break.

While the cases may not make it to the board until late in the school year, Dragoo and others will still have to make a hard choice before January 5. "I'm having to choose between my life and my job," Dragoo said, "and that's not fair."

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Austin Independent School District, Austin ISD, Education Austin, COVID-19, Americans With Disabilities Act, AISD Board of Trustees, Ken Zarifis, Annie Dragoo

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