Georgia teacher Samantha Mbozi hasn’t even entered a grocery store in the last six months. The 51-year-old just finished chemotherapy a year ago and is taking immunosuppressive drugs for two other illnesses. Her doctor told her strict quarantine could be a matter of life or death.
But late last month, the Gwinnett County School District gave her an ultimatum: Return to the classroom to teach in person, or stop teaching altogether.
“I said, ‘It’s not like I don’t want to work. I’m a single parent, I don’t know where my paychecks are coming from after this month,’” said Mbozi, an immigrant from Guyana and a single mother of two. “They said, ‘There’s no work-from-home options. If you’re not in the building, you take leave.’”
As the school year begins, Georgia teachers with potentially life-threatening medical conditions are being denied the ability to work from home—even in districts where the majority of students are learning remotely. Some, like Mbozi, are taking extended leave, unsure if their jobs will be there when the pandemic ends. Others have chosen to stick it out in situations that could jeopardize their lives, while still others have quit teaching entirely. A Gwinnett County spokesperson said 42 teachers had resigned over COVID-19 concerns so far.
Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, told The Daily Beast that not providing health accommodations is “the norm for what we’re seeing here in Georgia.”
“Our school administrators here want to believe that the pandemic exists somewhere else, and not in our school buildings,” she said.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Gwinnett County Schools said that schools have “worked with staff members to modify their workspaces in the building, their hours, and proximity to co-workers.” If those arrangements do not address the employee’s concerns, they are directed to the leave office for counseling.
Gwinnett County, a suburb northeast of Atlanta, is home to the largest school district in the state, with 180,000 students and nearly 25,000 employees. Though the rate of new coronavirus infections has been declining since a spike in August, the county still has the most hospitalizations and second most cases of any county in Georgia. (Georgia itself has the 13th highest positivity rate of any state in the country, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.)
In August, a 15-year-old Gwinnett County boy died of COVID-19, becoming the youngest known person to die of the virus in the metro Atlanta area. Earlier this month, 60 players and 10 coaches from a local high school football team were quarantined after one of the players tested positive.
But the controversy over in-person schooling first started in July, when the district announced the fall semester would be entirely virtual, due to rising county caseloads. More than 6,000 angry parents signed a petition to protest the decision, and hundreds rallied outside the district’s Instructional Support Center, carrying signs reading “Zoom is not a classroom,” and “Give us choice!”
Days later, Mbozi learned that she, too, would have no choice. Despite holding classes entirely online, the district still required educators to report to school and teach from their buildings. At first, Mbozi’s principal and the human resources department told her they would try to find an alternative setup. But shortly before teachers was expected to arrive for in-person preparation, the district called to say no one would be allowed to work from home.
Another Gwinnett County teacher who spoke with The Daily Beast said she, too, had been denied the ability to start the school year from home, despite being a four-time cancer survivor who had been in treatment six times over the last 12 years. The teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said a district human-resources representative told her about one teacher who is currently in treatment for cancer and had simply been placed in a trailer on campus.
Eventually, the teacher decided to report to work in person, so long as no students were present. “I really wanted to keep my job,” she said.
The teachers’ fears were not unfounded. On July 30, the day after in-person preparation began, the district reported that approximately 260 employees had tested positive or come into contact with a positive case. Teachers told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that training areas were not being wiped down or disinfected between meetings, masks were not being worn at all times, and some schools had not received any hand sanitizer. (A spokesperson for the district said health and safety guidelines were being followed.)
The next day, the district announced that it would start bringing students back into the classroom on Aug. 26.
Horrified, teachers and their family members rallied in their cars outside the district’s office, honking their horns and displaying signs on their windows for two days in a row. Mbozi, meanwhile, kept asking the district for some sort of accommodation. More than half of the students in the district had chosen to continue learning virtually, and she figured she could at least continue teaching those students online.
But days before students were set to arrive, Mbozi received word that no work-from-home accommodations would be provided. Her options were to keep teaching, quit, or take leave.
“This is my third career. This is not the first thing I've done,” she said. “This is what I was born to do, and I love what I do, I am great at what I do.”
But, she added, “I cannot put myself in that position... My life comes first, as much as I love the kids I teach. So [that] Tuesday, that was it, for me.”
Two other teachers with serious health concerns told The Daily Beast that they, too, were not provided accommodations to work from home.
The teacher who survived cancer, and who asked not to be named, said she submitted a formal request for work-from-home accommodation through the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities. The response she received from the school district, reviewed by The Daily Beast, offered her a face mask, face shield and plexiglass barrier instead.
The teacher asked the district to release her from her contract last week, and is currently seeking employment in another district.
Another teacher, Nickeva Jones, suffers from asthma, which puts her at greater risk for complications from the coronavirus. Her doctor provided her with paperwork, which The Daily Beast reviewed, saying she could perform her regular job duties only in an environment that met the CDC guidelines. Jones said a district HR representative told her that meeting these guidelines would be “tricky,” but did not offer her any additional accommodations.
Jones said she cannot afford to quit her job or take unpaid leave, so she is currently teaching classes in person. She wears a face mask and shield the entire day, meaning she does not eat for eight hours at a time.
“Until I can get into a better position… I just have no choice but to try to roll with it, like everyone else,” she said.
“I love my job, I love everything about it,” she added, noting that her school has been largely supportive. “But at the time, as teachers, that backing we get from the community and the stakeholders is something that keeps us going. And it feels like that has turned. I don’t really feel collectively valued anymore.”
In a statement, the district said that having teachers work from schools would help make the transition to in-person instruction “more effective and seamless for students.”
“As a district, we feel this is important,” a spokesperson said.
Other large, metropolitan school districts have been able to accommodate teachers with pre-existing health conditions. In Hartford, Connecticut, which also saw a little under half of its students returning in person, 31 teachers with health concerns have been allowed to teach from home. In New York City, the largest school system in the country, teachers aged 65 and older or with underlying health conditions are automatically eligible to teach virtually this fall. As of last week, 15,000 teachers in the city had been approved to do so.
According to Morgan, one of the biggest problems in Georgia is that teachers are not unionized, so they cannot collectively bargain for better protections. Instead, the Georgia Association of Educators is leaning on sympathetic school boards, and occasionally resorting to legal action, in hopes of securing accommodations. So far, there has been little progress. She knows of 10 teachers who have resigned because they could not secure accommodations.
Mbozi is currently using up the remainder of her vacation days and an emergency two-week leave while she applies for family medical leave and short-term disability. Together, they will cover less than a third of her usual salary. Mbozi said her daughter, a senior in college, recently offered to help pay her expenses with money from her summer job. She turned her down.
Despite the stress of this semester, Mbozi said she still hopes to return to teaching when the pandemic is over.
"Once it is safe, I have no problem doing what I'm supposed to do. But it is not safe for me,” she said.
“I don't want to be that person that suddenly I start getting a fever and start to panic and feel like, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’” she added. “Because you can't go back."