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Education Austin files 127 grievances against AISD to overturn remote work accommodations

Austin ISD recently denied more than 1,000 requests for medical accommodations for spring 2021.

AUSTIN, Texas — Education Austin filed grievances for 127 Austin ISD teachers to push the district to overturn the accommodations for remote work.

Education Austin is the labor union for certified and classified employees of AISD. Its president, Ken Zarifis, said in the 22 years that Education Austin has been around, he doesn't believe it's filed this many grievances together.

"The situation is worsening, yet our district in its infinite wisdom, apparently, decided that 1,000 people didn't deserve to have an accommodation, putting them at risk. They have refused to listen. They've refused to acknowledge the employees' needs," said Zarifis. "The outcome will not change, which really shows us that they had no interest in the medical reality that people were experiencing and that their agenda was to bring everybody back. Period. Regardless of condition, bring everyone back, and we're appalled by it."

The district told KVUE that in the fall semester, 1,244 medical accommodations were approved, 66 were denied and 74 were labeled as pending. Austin ISD released the following statement on Dec. 1:

"AISD cannot comment on specific employee matters. AISD developed a Benefits Review Committee to review all remote work accommodation requests for the spring semester. The committee individually reviewed each request – minus identifying information to protect employee privacy – and determined if a remote work arrangement was feasible based on medical risk, if the position was deemed as essential to district function or directly impacts high-needs students or populations, and the needs of the campus or department."

"The process is going to take literally, potentially months. And, so, these teachers are going to be placed in a situation to where they come into the Christmas break, or the holiday break, either returning to work or retiring or going out of medical leave, which is unfathomable," said Tiger Hanner, Austin attorney working with Education Austin.

On Dec. 1, AISD said the reason more remote work accommodations were given in the fall was out of an abundance of caution and, in the spring semester, it anticipates more students will be learning in-person.

"I love where I teach. I love my students. I literally love them. I spend, like I said, more time with my students than I do my family," said Annie Dragoo, an AISD musical theater teacher whose accommodation got denied. 

Dragoo is one of the individuals who filed a grievance through Education Austin. 

Earlier in December, KVUE interviewed Dragoo, who said she's had ADA accommodations for several years due to a rare heart disease. Recently, Dragoo said she appealed the denial and got denied again, which is why she's filing a grievance. 

Credit: Education Austin

"Even though I teach performance art, teaching virtually has not affected our ability to create art and be successful. I wish the district could see that. I wish they could see me teach. I wish they would come in and watch me teach and watch my students interact. It's just it hasn't happened," said Dragoo. "So, now, I have to choose between my life and going back into the classroom. Sounds so melodramatic, but that's really what it is."

"We can't control what we're born with, and I was born with a congenital heart defect, which is bad," said Patty Candelaria, an AISD teacher who also filed a grievance against AISD. "I've had three open-heart surgeries to correct it. The district can control to keep us safe remotely at home."

KVUE interviewed with AISD superintendent Dr. Elizalde on Tuesday night and she said they will follow the process the grievances outline.

"I wish there were alternatives that we could work with them on. As over 200 teachers and other staff members have reached out to us and said, 'If I can't work remote, what else can we do?' And so examples of additional protective equipment, such as plexiglass around an entire desk area, ensuring there may be a larger classroom, ensuring their room has additional ventilation, ensuring that they have N-95 masks," said Elizalde. "There's a varying level of accommodations rather than just one extreme to the other. And, so, I really want to reach out to them to say, 'Work with us and let's find something that can allow us to improve,' and increase how safe they may feel utilizing some other ways."

Elizalde emphasizes that it is necessary for their teachers to be in the classroom with students.

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