With Harford County Public Schools' staff set to return to their school buildings next week, about 35 teachers and staff are being allowed to continue teleworking under the American Disabilities Act.
But the head of the county’s teachers' union says that the school system is “bullying” a handful of teachers who were denied telework to either return, take unpaid leave or resign or retire.
Chrystie Crawford-Smick, the president of the Harford County Education Association, said the organization has supported more than 50 teachers who have applied for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act to continue teleworking, although she could not say how many had received or were denied those accommodations.
“All they want is to be able to continue to teach from home until their doctor feels it’s safe for them to return in person,” she said. “I don’t believe that is too much to ask."
School system officials said they received approximately 70 requests to telework under ADA. About half of those requests were ultimately approved, according to Katie Ridgway, supervisor of risk management for HCPS and its ADA coordinator.
About 30 had their requests approved by their direct supervisor and 40 were denied. Of those, Ridgway said 20 appealed their case to her and she was able to approve about five of them. Of the 15 cases where the denial was upheld, 10 have appealed and are still in that process with the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources.
However, once Ridgway denies the initial appeal, applicants receive a notice that they either need to report to work Monday, choose to submit a completed Family Medical Leave Act form, or submit a letter of resignation or retirement.
“As soon as I’ve made my decision … and the denial was upheld, you need to either report to work on Monday or choose one of these options and let us know, so we can plan ahead and have a teacher for those students on Monday,” Ridgway explained.
ADA requires that an employee has to complete the essential functions of their job, with or without accommodation, she explained.
“If you can only do those essential job functions in person, then a virtual accommodation is not possible. If you can do the job virtually, then you can be approved,” Ridgway said. “Our operational status has changed, and students are returning to the building, and on Monday, teachers will have physical students physically in their classroom. They did not have that before then.”
Harford County Public Schools employs 2,962 teachers. As of Monday, 16 had have received approval for leave starting Oct. 12, under either the Family Medical Leave Act or the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, according to data supplied by Jillian Lader, a spokesperson for HCPS.
Those 16 are not necessarily among the employees denied ADA teleworking accommodations, she said.
Overall, Lader said 185 staff members — not all of whom are teachers — had inquired with the school system’s Human Resources Benefits Department about the process or information about eligibility requirements for either of the federal leave options. An inquiry, she noted, does not mean they have applied for leave.
FMLA provides employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave annually for certain family and medical reasons, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. FFCRA provides paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19.
Harford County Public Schools announced last month that staff would return to schools Oct. 12, along with additional students to Learning Support Centers. Educators would teach virtually from those buildings, while also welcoming more students back under a hybrid learning plan starting Oct. 19.
The deadline was Friday for parents of elementary school children in Harford County to decide whether to send their children back to school for one day a week — with virtual learning the rest of the time — or remain in the all-virtual setting. Results of those inquiries were not available as of Tuesday.
HCPS welcomed some students to Learning Support Centers when the school year began Sept. 8. The rest of the county’s roughly 38,000 public school students have been learning virtually to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
Under a return plan discussed with the Board of Education Sept. 21, students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as a number of children in special education programs, would report to school the week of Oct. 19.
With the exception of those already enrolled in learning centers, classes would be broken up into four groups, with each group attending schools for in-person instruction once a week while learning virtually the rest of the week.
Students in grades 3-5 and Pre-K would return for a one-day per week hybrid on Nov. 4 if health metrics hold steady, and middle and high school students would begin a one-day hybrid Nov. 16.
By Dec. 7, having all students in buildings twice a week for in-person learning “is possible,” according to the plan. Superintendent Sean Bulson said that would likely depend on how many students opt to continue learning fully virtually. Physical distancing requirements make it difficult to return all students to school, Bulson said previously.
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Beyond teachers who have applied and been denied ADA accommodations, Crawford-Smick is frustrated because “questions regarding safety precautions have not been answered," by HCPS officials.
“Students will be in our classrooms on Monday, and many educators are still waiting for a final schedule and answers to a never-ending list of questions,” she said. “Their workload is impossible, and there is no relief in sight.”
Bulson said that an FAQ was sent to elementary school teachers on Tuesday, but the school system did not provide a copy of that document to the Aegis as of 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Crawford-Smick reasoned that since students are still going to be learning virtually even under the once-a-week hybrid model, “there is absolutely no reason that HCPS cannot provide staff with health conditions the opportunity of telework.”
She added that while parents have a choice whether their children can continue to learn all virtually, and some school employees have also been given the option to telework, it’s hypocritical that educators with documented medical conditions are denied the same opportunity.
Safety protocols, including cleaning, frequent handwashing, masks and social distancing have been built into the plan to return teachers and students to class, Bulson said. He said he’s heard concerns from teachers and parents alike and recognizes that safety is a really important question to address.
“I’m confident we have a safe plan and we’re following the guidance very carefully,” he said.