By TJ Thornton
As back-to-school season starts this fall, it’s an uncertain time to be an educator — especially an educator in the high-risk category for COVID-19. According to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 24 percent of educators — almost one in four — are at risk of a serious illness if they contract coronavirus. That’s roughly 1.5 million teachers. I am one of them.
I have an autoimmune disorder and asthma. My health problems can be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which entitles me to accommodations from my employer. Over the years, I’ve learned to be a strong self-advocate, asking for and receiving supports from my school district so I can effectively do my job.
Unfortunately, in my experience, that’s not the norm for educators. While teachers may be strong advocates for students, they often don’t advocate for their own needs. Even when they have disabilities covered under the ADA, they don’t always disclose them or seek accommodations at work.
As a society, we don’t make it easy for teachers to self-advocate.
There are many reasons for that. Teachers might fear that speaking up will put their job at risk or that school administrators will question their ability to do their job well. They may worry that colleagues will think they’re “getting away” with something. And they may be so used to helping others that they’re uncomfortable asking for help for themselves.
As a society, we don’t make it easy for teachers to self-advocate. To begin with, we don’t always see them as individuals. We overlook that they may need accommodations and supports like other employees do. With COVID, we don’t even cheer for them as they run into harm’s way to do their jobs. No wonder teachers tend to keep their needs to themselves.
This has to change, and fast.
My COVID Advocacy Journey
When it comes to my health, I don’t wait to seek help. I know that getting supports into place is a process. That may be another reason many teachers hold back — if your school doesn’t see the need or the urgency to provide accommodations for teachers, the process can become drawn out and confrontational. Preparation is key.
As soon as it became clear that COVID-19 was making its way to the United States, I started communicating with my doctor, school administration, and building-level union support. My doctor confirmed that, yes, because of my autoimmune condition, I am at risk of getting any upper respiratory infection and of having complications. If there were community spread and schools were open, I needed to stay home.
In the beginning of March, I started speaking with my teaching team and school administration about needing coverage for my class if there were a community outbreak and school remained open. I also contacted my district’s human resources department and my union to discuss options for using my sick leave. (This was before many of the COVID-specific policies and procedures protecting employees were in place.)
So when COVID-19 hit my county in Washington state, my principal was very understanding and supportive of my taking time off. I was out for two days before the district switched to distance learning. I chose to simply use my own sick leave for those days, knowing it was a short-term need.
How I Planned Ahead
Of course, we now know this pandemic is anything but short-term. Before the school year was even over, I began talking with the principal about the likelihood of my needing a distance learning option for the 2020–2021 school year. At that point, we knew very little about what the fall and the rest of the school year would look like. I wanted to make sure my employer knew I might need accommodations.
I had the resources, knowledge, and tools to make the case for accommodations.
During the summer break, I did several things to continue my self-advocacy:
- I reached out to my union president to see what more I needed to do. His primary suggestion was that I make sure my principal was aware of my needs.
- I spoke with my doctor regarding what would be best for me and received doctor’s notes stating I needed to work from home.
- More importantly, I read about my rights as an educator with health challenges. I read up on the ADA and on what the National Education Association and my state association felt were reasonable accommodations. I looked up what protections I had if the district were unable to meet my needs.
At the end of July, my district determined it would start the school year virtually. At that point, it was unclear if teachers would be able to work from home or would be required to be in the school (even if the students weren’t). Armed with my doctor’s notes, information from the CDC on high-risk categories, and my state union’s guidance that telework for medium and large districts was a reasonable accommodation, I wasn’t overly worried.
As of mid-August, my district agreed: Those of us with pre-existing conditions are able to work from home — as are those who simply choose to work from home. I had the resources, knowledge, and tools to make the case for accommodations. This time, I didn’t need them.
Resources for Requesting Accommodations
Like any other employer, school districts have to follow the ADA and give reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. That includes physical, learning, and medical disabilities. Teachers need to know that. We all need to know that.
Advocating for yourself isn’t always comfortable, but I remind myself that I am a professional who is guaranteed and deserves the same rights as other workers.
I’m fortunate to work with school administrators who listen to my concerns and in a district that made decisions in line with my needs. I have had health challenges for much of my life, and I’ve learned to advocate for what I need. So my advocacy process went fairly smoothly. I know it’s not the same in all schools.
Advocating for yourself isn’t always comfortable, but I remind myself that I am a professional who is guaranteed and deserves the same rights as other workers. If I would advocate for a student or colleague, then I should advocate for myself.
I hope that our experiences with the COVID pandemic make the public more aware of what teachers do every day to help students learn and thrive. I hope our society starts to value and support teachers more. And most of all, I hope teachers become better self-advocates and use the protections they have under the law.
For more resources about how to advocate for your needs as an employee: