AUSTIN, Texas — Eanes ISD teachers are fighting for the right to choose between remote or on-campus teaching. The school district announced all teachers and staff are required to go back next week even if they have medical documentation suggesting they should be working from home.
"When that email came in, I was heartbroken," said Gina Morreale, a West Ridge Middle School eighth-grade teacher.
Morreale submitted medical documentation hoping to teach from home at the start of the school year. She suffers from chronic bronchitis that has led to pneumonia.
"We know that COVID attacks the lungs the way it does. I mean, the research, the studies are there. My biggest fear is ending up on a vent. I want to breathe on my own and I want to be able to teach my kids. I want to be able to talk," said Morreale. "I have a history of hospitalizations. I've had double pneumonia where I ended up in the hospital. So I have been isolated. I spent the summer at my parents' house in New York. I didn't see any friends. I don't go to the grocery store. I have been living alone without seeing friends here. I don't even see my brother. So I've been taking COVID really, really seriously."
Morreale got approved to teach virtually from the school district. The email said:
"The health care provider’s note that you provided to our department has been received. Your records will be maintained in accordance with applicable confidentiality requirements.
"We have approved the remote work or teaching accommodation. This accommodation is considered the most effective given your essential job functions and our operational necessities. It is critical that you understand all work is remote and we ask for your safety that you do not report to campus for any duties or extracurricular programs.
"Your accommodation will be implemented and effective on Aug. 17, 2020. Please know that as a district employee, our responsibility is to the students that we serve.
"If at any time the district is required to provide full operation or your position is required on-site, you may be contacted to return to duty."
On Friday, when Eanes ISD made the announcement about the changes, Morreale said she didn't know what to do.
"Now, I have to make a decision on my life or my career, it feels like. And so, I'm hoping the district will change course or get creative with some options for us, but it's terrifying. It's absolutely terrifying right now," said Morreale. "We don't have a choice in the calendar or any decisions that are made on our behalf. We go with the flow. We're good teachers and we love our district, but this is life or death for some of us and it's just awful."
In a statement Eanes ISD said:
"This is understandably a difficult issue; we value and appreciate our staff and will do what we can to accommodate the return to the building. For the past few months, we have honored staff requests for remote work but regrettably, various factors now require the district to ask all staff to return to work as early as Sept. 21.
"Our campuses have been short-staffed even with just 25% capacity; some campuses have been forced to have an all-hands approach and even have principals serving as teachers in classrooms. Our campuses need teachers, counselors, librarians, aides and all need special education teachers and aides. Without more in-building staff, we may have difficulties providing a Free Appropriate Education (FAPE) required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
"Our Human Resources staff has begun discussions with staff to work through accommodations. Each case will be evaluated; each person will be heard."
Some students have even spoken out in support of their teachers.
"All teachers should be heard. They shouldn't have to go to school and get sick and even die," said Hadley McDonell, a freshman as Eanes ISD's Westlake High School.
McDonell said it's only right to stand up for teachers and feels like this change is unfair.
"I'm definitely really close to a lot of my teachers. They always advocate for me, make sure I get what I need and I'm safe and I'm having a good time and I'm enjoying the school. They make sure that the lessons are tailored to their students. And I was like, it's our turn to advocate for them and make sure that we can keep them safe," said McDonell.
"Please consider keeping your kids remote if it is possible," said Allyson Vaughn, a Westlake High School biology teacher.
Vaughn said they're all working toward the same goal, which is to teach kids and keep them safe, but she thinks the school district should give teachers a choice.
"I think we should have been prioritizing elementary all along, but middle school and high school students, who don't have special needs when it comes to academics, who can stay at home, they need to do so because this is coming down to teachers with underlying health conditions having to put their lives on the line for this," said Vaughn.
Eanes ISD said they have multiple safety precautions in place such as PPE, plexiglass, schedule adjustments, etc. It said, if the employee does not agree to the accommodations we are able to provide, "we will work with that employee on other options for them, such as filing for Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)."
"We would do everything we can to help employees transition safely, as we need our staff members safe but in the building. Termination is always a last resort, but an employee refusing to report to work is a hard situation for any employer to manage," said an Eanes ISD spokesperson.
Eanes ISD currently has three active cases among students and staff as of Monday morning.
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