Madison West High School students on Wednesday protested what they see as the school district’s mishandling of a beloved Spanish teacher’s repeated requests for accommodations to protect her from COVID-19.
Deana Zorko, who is immunocompromised after a double organ transplant eight years ago, was moved to the district’s pilot online school a month after she’d already started the school year at West, despite having asked to teach at the online school months earlier.
The move has frustrated West High School students disappointed to lose Zorko to the Madison Promise Academy. They called out district administrators for their lack of “student-centered decision making” in a petition that had more than 400 signatures by early Wednesday afternoon, according to Tamara Packard, the attorney representing the teacher.
The Madison teachers union, Madison Teachers Inc., threw its support behind the student protest.
“This late change has created a lot of additional stress and work for her as she changes to a new curriculum, new students, and new job, after the school year is well underway. At the same time it was incredibly difficult leaving her current students,” MTI building representative Jeff Knight said.
For the first month of the school year, Zorko had been working online from home through Zoom with the help of a retired substitute teacher who facilitated in-person learning with students in the classroom.
“While the situation of Ms. Zorko teaching online was not ideal for neither her nor her classes, many students preferred this teaching style to the one imposed after her departure,” the student-led petition read. “She has gone above and beyond to come up with creative solutions to make teaching virtually work for her students.”
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. Despite being vaccinated and receiving a booster shot, she remains at high risk of death if she were to contract COVID-19.
Up until this year, the district had been accommodating her needs, Packard told the Wisconsin State Journal at the start of the school year. 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 Zorko said worked and that she was hoping to continue this year.
Zorko spoke out about the issue before the Madison School Board in late August, just before the start of the school year, her voice heavy with emotion as she appealed to the board to push the administration to expedite its decision regarding where and how she would teach. She described her experience as a choice she was being forced to make between her career and her health days before students were scheduled to return to classrooms.
District spokesperson Tim LeMonds on Wednesday said “Ms. Zorko was not reassigned nor terminated from her position. Rather, she applied for a Spanish teaching position in Madison Promise and she was accepted.”
He called her “a valued (school district) staff member, and we continue our focus on supporting Ms. Zorko and have been working collaboratively to find the best solution for her.”
Packard called LeMonds’ characterization of Zorko’s move inaccurate.
“Ms. Zorko tried repeatedly before the school year began to be accommodated with a reassignment to the Promise Academy as all teaching there is being done virtually, from teacher homes,” Packard said in an email Wednesday.
District administration told Zorko that it sought teachers who would take the assignment in addition to their regular work duties, but because Zorko wanted to work only at the online school and not in addition to her role at West, she wasn’t given the position, Packard said. Last week, however, the administration changed its mind.