Detroit teacher challenges district’s denial of remote teaching option

A teacher works with students over Zoom in her classroom.

A veteran Detroit teacher is challenging the school district in federal court, asking a judge to rule that the district should allow faculty to teach from home if they have underlying medical conditions.

The lawsuit, if it moves forward, could test the district’s COVID protocols, specifically its requirement that most teachers work in person. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said in-person learning is a crucial step in recovering from a pandemic that has seen student engagement dip and chronic absenteeism rise.

School districts and other government agencies across Michigan and throughout the country have faced legal challenges to local, state, and federal COVID protocols, but most of those lawsuits scrutinized mask and vaccination mandates as being too restrictive.

The district announced Wednesday that schools are moving to remote instruction for three Fridays in December, a decision district officials attributed to concerns about student and staff mental health, COVID cases, and school cleanliness.

Nicole Conaway, a 15-year district math teacher, said her doctors informed her that she should teach virtually due to her “recurrent maxillary sinusitis, allergies and chronic asthma,” which put her at acute risk of “pulmonary complications if infected with COVID-19.” A hearing for the case was held at the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse on Tuesday.

In response to her requests to school leaders at the start of the school year, Conaway alleges, the district denied her paid sick time through the Family Medical Leave Act, claiming that her chronic asthma was “not a covered reason.” She also alleges that the district denied her request to receive accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act to teach from home.

Conaway is an active member of the group By Any Means Necessary, an organization that has been a vocal opponent of in-person learning. Last summer, the organization sued the district seeking to halt in-person summer school. The group has held regular protests outside district headquarters, pushing for a shutdown of school campuses. The lawyer representing Conaway in her lawsuit also represented the group in its quest to halt in-person summer school.

The district didn’t respond to questions about the lawsuit. But in its Oct. 15 response to Conaway’s lawsuit, district officials denied wrongdoing. 

Outside of court proceedings, though, the district has been trying to iron out an agreement that would get Conaway back to teaching, initially suggesting that she apply to be transferred to the district’s virtual school if she would be willing to work in person from the building a portion of the week. The virtual school, which is new this school year, allows a limited number of students to learn online. Teachers are required to teach from a district building.

Conaway refused the district’s offer and opted to stay home. She said that she has used up nearly all of her paid leave.

“The district has said I can teach virtually three days a week, but not five days a week. Well, COVID is in the schools every day of the week,” Conaway said. As long as her asthma put her at risk within school buildings, she said, she could not accept the district’s offer unless her doctors said otherwise.

“Nobody wants to be stuck teaching or learning from home. It’s very difficult and very challenging, but we want to be safe; we want to keep each other safe.”

Terrence Martin, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, declined to comment on the  federal case, but said the district’s accommodations for teachers “has always been a concern.”

“We want everyone to have the opportunity to teach in the best condition possible for them with their health and safety in mind,” Martin said.

Conaway’s case is set for a jury trial next October.

Correction: This story has been updated to make clear that Nicole Conaway’s doctor recommended she not teach in person. Also, we’ve corrected what rights under the Family Medical Leave Act Conaway was denied by the district.

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