As students prepare to head back to Madison classrooms Thursday and Friday, families and teachers are worried about their own health and safety as COVID-19 disrupts in-person learning nationwide.
About 750 families applied to have their children enrolled in a last-minute online elementary school option — five times the number the Madison School District was prepared to accommodate. Also, some district teachers’ requests to teach online due to health concerns have gone unanswered or been denied leading up to the start of the school year.
In a sign officials are also increasingly concerned about disease transmission in schools, the district announced Wednesday that masks must be worn by elementary and middle school students outdoors, including on playgrounds. They were already required indoors as part of a Dane County public health order.
The requirement includes staff, families and visitors in elementary and middle school buildings, as well as after-school child care and activities at K-8 schools, but not high schools, where all students are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Madison schools will work with families who need accommodations to ensure students’ needs are met, district spokesperson Tim LeMonds said.
Some teachers are also trying to avoid the health complications that could arise from returning to the classroom amid the surging delta variant of the coronavirus.
One West High School teacher with significant health concerns spoke out about the issue before the Madison School Board on Monday, her voice heavy with emotion. She described it as a choice she is being forced to make between her career and her health days before students are scheduled to return to classrooms.
“I’m a dual organ transplant recipient,” said Deana Zorko, a Spanish teacher at West High School. “Even though I’m vaccinated, I’m not protected due to aggressive medications that I have to take to avoid organ rejection.”
The district hadn’t yet definitively responded to Zorko’s request to teach online as of Wednesday, one day before students were scheduled to return to classrooms amid the resurging COVID-19 pandemic fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant. As of Wednesday, she didn’t plan to return to the classroom due to the risk to her health, Zorko’s attorney, Tamara Packard, said.
Zorko, a teacher for three decades who had been in the Madison School District for 18 years, underwent a double organ transplant due to complications from type 1 diabetes in 2013 and has since been on immunosuppressant medications to keep her body from rejecting the donated organs. Up until this year, the district had been accommodating of her needs, Packard said.
Last spring, when the district pivoted back to in-person learning, Zorko was able to teach her in-class students from home with the help of other West High staff who were present in the classroom, a method she said worked and that she was hoping to continue this year.
Packard said after Zorko requested on July 23 to teach from home in the fall, the district suggested she use plastic dividers at school, something Zorko’s doctor rejected.
LeMonds said the administration is working with Zorko to meet her needs.
This fall the district is opening its new online school for grades 6-12, called the Madison Promise Academy, which will teach roughly 250 students in its first year, after receiving 452 applications for the program. The program includes Spanish language classes, but the district rejected a request from Zorko, who asked to be a teacher at the new online school.
The district last week also announced it will offer an online option for students in grades K-5, a move Zorko blasted as “ironic” in her speech to the board. Zorko and Packard said they offered other work-from-home solutions to the district that were denied or ignored.
The district opened the applications for the online option on Thursday and closed them at noon Monday to notify the families whose students would be enrolled in the program the following day. Due to the significant interest, the district pushed the date to notify families to Wednesday, a day before school was set to start. LeMonds said the district is working to accommodate all families who expressed an interest in the elementary online school option.
On Tuesday, the Wisconsin State Journal asked for records on teachers who sought disability accommodations in the new school year, but those records had not been provided as of Wednesday.
Union weighs in
Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, the new president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union, said she has heard of pockets around the state, outside of Madison, where teachers have faced similar struggles leading up to the new year.
Madison Teachers Inc. president Michael Jones said he is aware of a few other COVID-related accommodation requests from members, including one teacher who asked to work from home due to child care needs. That request was denied by the district.
He said he is not aware of other teachers who have submitted a disability accommodation to work remotely.
“That is what makes it so frustrating. Ms. Zorko’s situation is incredibly unique,” Jones said. “If Ms. Zorko is forced out on a medical leave until a safer solution is found, (the district) will have to pay for and use a valuable substitute teacher, who will not be as well positioned to teach West students.”
Last Friday the district said it had 138 vacancies to fill with 69 open teaching positions and 69 open support staff positions.