Spanish teacher Deana Zorko will once again teach students at Madison West High School beginning Monday, after students rallied in support of her following the district moving her to its virtual academy one month into the school year.
Zorko, a double organ transplant recipient, sought accommodations to teach this year over the summer, when she applied to Madison Metropolitan School District’s new Madison Promise virtual program for students in grades 6-12. In lieu of a position there, she began the year teaching four classes at West in a similar manner as she had last spring: she was at home teaching through a screen while a long-term substitute teacher handled the duties of managing the classroom where students were in-person.
On Oct. 1, nearly a full month into the school year, Zorko told her students at West it was her last day there and she would instead be teaching through the virtual academy. While Zorko had been interested in that arrangement, the timing of it coming after she had started the school year was far from ideal, Madison Teachers Inc. president Michael Jones said.
“At least by (starting in the summer) she would have been able to prepare, be able to develop the curriculum that she thought would be best for the kids to help the students who are learning virtually,” Jones said. “To all of a sudden move teachers a month in, you’re talking about building a strong relationship and then breaking that relationship away; that’s a really emotional thing.”
While her students said the arrangement took some getting used to, dozens of them rallied earlier this week and more than 1,000 community members signed a petition urging the district to allow her to continue at West, which was her preference, attorney Tamara Packard said.
MMSD spokesperson Tim LeMonds said earlier this week Zorko was not reassigned to the Promise Academy; “Rather, she applied for a Spanish teaching position in Madison Promise and was accepted.”
In a statement announcing her return to West effective Oct. 11, sent via email by Packard Friday, Zorko said she was “so proud of my students using their voice to speak up for their education.”
“I feel humbled by their support and the support of members of the community who have advocated for this outcome,” Zorko said. “I love teaching at West, I love my students and can’t wait to see everyone in class on Monday. Let’s get back to la clase de espanol!”
LeMonds confirmed Zorko would return to West on Monday but said the district had no further comment on the situation.
Packard noted in the announcement that the district has not committed to allowing Zorko to teach at West beyond the end of first semester, calling it a “temporary solution.”
“Thankfully they have also agreed to ‘continue the conversation,’” the announcement said. “Ms. Zorko and her Union believe the most appropriate solution is for the District to allow Ms. Zorko to complete the year with her West students, virtually, as this is the most student-centered approach to a problem with no perfect solution.”
Jones wrote in an email Friday he is “glad the district is moving in a direction where they're making accommodations for Ms. Zorko.”
“Everyone wins when we recognize and center everyone's humanity,” Jones wrote.
Students at Wednesday’s walkout criticized the district for the sudden change and said the decision was not made with them in mind.
Junior Miranda Garcia-Dove, who is in Advanced Placement Spanish literature, said there was “no student input on this decision.” Senior Henry Merrell-Van Sickle, who started a petition that had more than 1,000 signatures as of Friday, said the decision was focused on aligning with what he considers a “rigid policy of how teachers teach in these times.”
“I know it's cliché but these are very unprecedented times,” Merrell-Van Sickle said. “And we need to be more malleable and adjust more adequately to how things are working today.
“This is just an example of, they're just trying to follow their own rules, they're not really doing what's best for people.”
In August, Zorko herself pleaded with the School Board just before the year began. She explained that while she is vaccinated, she is "not protected due to aggressive medication that I have to take to avoid organ rejection."
“I’m being forced to make a choice between the career and the students I love and my life and health,” she told the board. “The district administration has repeatedly refused, since July 23, to afford me accommodations to work virtually for the upcoming school year as outlined and supported by my doctors, and I quote, ‘To keep Ms. Zorko safe from severe illness and death from COVID-19.’”
Jones had praised West principal Karen Boran’s handling of the situation, as Boran was paying for the physically present substitute out of West’s school budget. Boran visited briefly with the students during the walkouts Wednesday and thanked them for expressing their opinion.
While she said she could not comment on Zorko’s situation, she said in an interview she “100% supports” the students exercising their First Amendment rights, adding they are “great kids” and she feels “lucky to be in a school” where they can express themselves in this way.
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