Detroit fires veteran teacher who fought to work from home

An empty high school classroom.
Since the beginning of the school year, Nicole Conaway, a 16-year math and science teacher in the Detroit Public Schools Community District had repeatedly asked to be allowed to teach remotely from home, citing medical risk. (Jetta Productions / Getty Images)

The Detroit district school board fired a veteran teacher who challenged the district’s in-person work requirement and fought to be able to teach from home due to a medical condition.

The school board voted 5-1 at its Tuesday meeting to fire Nicole Conaway, with board member Sherry Gay-Dagnogo casting the lone dissenting vote. Conaway has been a vocal critic of the district for years, and has been heavily involved in the By Any Means Necessary activist group, which has opposed face-to-face learning during the pandemic. 

Critics of the decision said they feared it would hurt efforts by other teachers and students in the district to seek accommodations because of medical issues or disabilities.

Since the beginning of the school year, Conaway, a 16-year district math and science teacher, had repeatedly asked to be allowed to teach remotely from home, citing recurring issues with her sinuses as well as chronic asthma, which she says would put her at acute risk if she gets infected with COVID-19.

She filed a lawsuit in federal court last fall seeking to force the district to allow her to work remotely. During this time she also sought time off and accommodations from the district under the federal Family Medical Leave Act and the Americans for Disabilities Act, but was turned down. 

A statement read by board member Sonya Mays ahead of the termination vote said that Conaway’s asthma and allergies are not covered under those two laws, and that Conaway had declined the district’s offer to let her work in person at the district’s virtual school. 

“Ms. Conaway claims that her allergies and asthma keep her from coming into a school building but that she can still work from home five days a week,” the statement said. “To accommodate her medical concerns, the district offered her a position at the virtual school. Ms. Conaway rejected that offer.” 

Conaway, speaking during the public comment section, called the board’s decision “wrongful and illegal” and told board members to “put a stop to this administration’s policies of retaliation.”

“As the board it is your duty to represent us, the community, who elected you to make decisions based on what is best for our students in our community,” Conaway said. “Protect us from COVID, grant our ADA requests, provide full opportunity for virtual learning and teaching and keep all schools open.”

Last summer, the Detroit Public Schools Community District reached an agreement with the Detroit Federation of Teachers union that required its members to return to in-person instruction for this school year.

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According to the statement Mays read, Conaway’s request for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act was denied after she failed to submit a medical release form for the district to get information from her doctors. The district, the statement added, gave Conaway multiple opportunities to present her case and submit documentation through meetings with board members and union representatives.

“When no new different medical information was provided, and she failed to sign the medical release, she was informed that a recommendation to terminate for job abandonment would occur,” the statement said.

Former and current district students and teachers at the meeting urged board members to keep Conaway and approve her requests. Many of her supporters identified themselves as members of By Any Means Necessary, which staged protests in the early months of the pandemic when the district first launched an in-person summer school. The group eventually sued the district to halt the summer program.

Shawn Vaughn, a member of By Any Means Necessary and former Osborn High School student, said the decision could affect other teachers seeking medical accommodation to work remotely.

“This is a path that if the school board follows opens up for the attack on basic accommodation for students and staff with disabilities,” Vaughn said.

“Nicole has been fighting to get this ADA accommodation for months to keep herself, family and friends safe from the COVID pandemic,” said Maria Belman, an organizer with the group, who called the termination a “political attack.” 

“Not letting her teach safely at home means depriving students, Detroit students, of the kind of top tier education they deserve. With her years of experience and knowledge, Nicole is not replaceable.”​​

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org

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