Teachers in New York City who have been fully inoculated against COVID-19 but have health conditions that still make them vulnerable to the virus allege the city is giving them an impossible choice: risk their lives by returning to the classroom or give up their jobs.
Manhattan high school teacher and former investigative journalist Steven Edwards has Stage IV kidney cancer. He has been fully vaxxed since Feb. 11, but has no COVID antibodies due to chemotherapy treatments that “deplet[ed] the whole immune system—and that takes time to build back,” Edwards said Friday on a Zoom call with journalists.
According to Edwards, his doctors told him it could take at least six months to a year until he’s healthy enough to be around large groups of people again. In the meantime, he wants to keep teaching and pointed out that he has done so remotely for the past year-and-a-half during which time he provided “excellent service” to his pupils. But when Edwards requested a medical accommodation allowing him to continue teaching remotely for the time being, he claims the NYC Department of Education (DOE) refused him outright.
“The next day there was the refusal saying, Your case has been closed because the job requires being in-person, and that’s that,” Edwards said on Friday’s call, which was organized by his union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).
“I don’t want to be just shunted aside,” explained Edwards, who said he would be forced to apply for unemployment for the remainder of the pandemic and would be without health insurance if he lost his teaching job. “We just need a bit of help over this COVID period.”
Federal and state law mandate a “reasonable accommodation” be provided to any worker with a physical, medical, mental, or psychological impairment to assist them in doing their job. However, the NYC Department of Education has now allegedly implemented what UFT President Michael Mulgrew dubbed a “get-tough” policy and is broadly rejecting accommodation requests by teachers with major illnesses who want to—for the time being—continue teaching online.
“The city’s position is outrageous,” Mulgrew said in a statement. “We have urged the arbitrator now working on this case to ensure that medical accommodation requests will be evaluated on the basis of medical necessity, not according to City Hall’s political agenda.”
In an email, DOE press secretary Danielle Filson told The Daily Beast, “Nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our staff, who show up in countless ways for New York City students. We are reaching out to these employees directly and will make the necessary accommodations for them.”
All staff will be able to submit new requests to ensure everyone one who is eligible for a medical accommodation receives one, a DOE source close to the situation told The Daily Beast.
On Friday’s call, Mulgrew noted that NYC public schools “are definitely having remote needs in terms of medically fragile students at home.” Additionally, he said there are “all sorts of” opportunities for immunocompromised educators working remotely to be useful. Edwards pointed out that he has maintained regular online office hours that enable him to meet with students, and works with kids on their essays using Google Docs. In fact, according to Edwards, he has often been even busier working remotely than he had been on-site.
Ari Decherd, a percussionist and music teacher at the Academy for Software Engineering near Union Square, is severely immunocompromised having undergone three kidney transplants. And even though he has received three doses of the COVID vaccine, he’s still not protected.
“My body does not produce antibodies in response to the vaccine,” he said on the Friday call. “It is 100 percent a safety issue for me.”
When Decherd applied for a medical accommodation to teach remotely, he said it was rejected within hours. When he asked administrators what they suggested he do, Decherd said they told him to get vaccinated.
“I was like, ‘Yeah I did. That's the problem,” recalled Decherd, saying he asked if the decision makers had even read his application. “They still just said, ‘Our guidance remains the same.’ It was very callous. It was very not helpful.”
All Decherd has ever wanted to do is teach, saying he comes from a long line of educators. And to be sure, he’d much rather be teaching in the classroom than doing it virtually, Decherd said. He just can’t be there in person right now without risking his life.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that all U.S. businesses with more than 100 employees, which includes hospitals and other healthcare facilities, must require their workers to be vaccinated or be tested weekly. The City of Los Angeles, which boasts the nation’s second-largest school district, also on Thursday implemented a vaccine mandate for all students 12 and older. For New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, it’s a step too far.
“We just don’t think that's the right thing to do,” de Blasio said at a press conference on Thursday, subsequently adding. “We can always—with any option, we can keep any option on the table, but right now, no, we want every kid in school and we want to reach them the ways we’re reaching them.”
Mulgrew said he believes his constituents have been treated “illegally” under New York labor law, and if the city doesn’t provide sufficient accommodation for at-risk teachers to keep their jobs, he will take his complaint to New York State Attorney General Letitia James. The pandemic has become overly politicized, according to Mulgrew, which has diverted attention away from the real issues.
“The first thing is, we have to get these workers protected and get them what they legally have rights to,” said Mulgrew. “And basically, we would like them to get what they morally have a right to, which is to be protected while they serve the children of our city.”
The Mayor’s Office did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.