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TUSD Staff: Who gets to stay at home?

Some staffers say they're being forced to work on campus despite health risks
Posted at 8:06 PM, Oct 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-05 08:55:54-04

TUCSON, Ariz. — Tucson Unified is tackling more requests from staff to work remotely as the district prepares to open classrooms.

TUSD could begin in-person learning in a few weeks if Pima County’s COVID-19 metrics are met.

But we’re learning some staff feel they’re being forced to work on campus despite health risks.

A email sent to staff at one TUSD school informs them they are required to attend work daily on campus when students return.

But we heard from one employee who wants to work at home.

A TUSD document we obtained shows the staffer qualified for a medical exemption to work remotely under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is a federal law.

It states the employee is in a high risk category for contracting COVID-19.

The staffer doesn't want to be identified, but explains the reason for concern.

“I think we know our own kids to know that they’re probably not going to comply with everything that’s going to be asked of them,” the employee said, “You know, we’re outnumbered. The staff is outnumbered basically by the kids.”

The staffer is now waiting to hear how workers who have a high-risk condition will be protected when students fill the campuses.

The TUSD document lists proposed accommodations, such as “try and isolate the employee when at all possible, and if the site can permit, allow the employee to complete tasks from home. When the employee does return to work, physically distance or use barriers whenever possible between staff and students”.

We reached out to the Tucson Education Association (TEA). The union president, Margaret Chaney, told us only 21 teachers have approved accommodations and those who can't get approved need to work with school principals.

And in a recent letter to union members, Chaney wrote “TEA does not believe requiring support staff to report to campus is necessary and only increases anxiety, tensions, as well as the likelihood of spreading COVID virus just as we face the beginning of flu season."

Cheney wrote that the union is working to gauge the number of employees who have applied for ADA accommodations, how many have been approved or denied, and how many plan to apply.

So we reached out to Tucson Unified to get an answer to the question: Who gets to stay at home?

TUSD's ADA Compliance Director, Nicole Lowery, deals with each request.

And in certain cases, she tells staffers that remote doesn't have to mean home, it can also mean an isolated place on campus.

“There's all kinds of reasonable accommodations that can limit your exposure and limit your contact that will still allow you to be on campus,” said Lowery.

Reasonable Accommodations

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodations so long as the accommodation does not place an undue hardship on the employer.

What’s reasonable, Lowery said, depends on what the staffer’s individual conditions requires. Employees aren’t guaranteed to get the exact accommodation they requested.

An accommodation entails modifying the work setting for staffers to perform essential job duties. They are also allowed to take earned or unpaid leave.

The ADA does not cover employees who live with someone who has a high-risk condition or a disability.

Districts Decide

Lowery said the district has to decide which conditions to prioritize and accommodate while still maintaining staffing levels.

The TUSD document states the district “intends to allow instructors covered under the ADA to continue to work remotely until the Pima County Health Dept. provides authorization to fully open schools and the volume of students requires their return to the building.”

And when the pandemic ends, the ADA accommodations will expire.

“We just want to make sure our employees know that just because you have an ADA accommodation doesn't mean that you are at home and working remotely through the rest of the semester or school year because we will need to support our students in the building for supervision and education,” she said.

Health Conditions

Those at high risk identified by the CDC include these conditions:
Obesity (body mass index of 30 or higher)
Serious heart conditions
Type 2 diabetes mellitus

Those who might be at an increased risk include these conditions:
Hypertension or high blood pressure
Liver disease
Type 1 diabetes mellitus

Click here for the CDC’s full list.