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UW-Madison faculty want answers on remote teaching requests for vulnerable instructors

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UW-Madison Bascom Hall

Three UW-Madison instructors with a medical condition or disability who wanted to teach online this fall said they were told the university is denying nearly all requests regardless of one’s health circumstances because of a need to offer as many in-person classes as possible.

The instructors’ conversations with three different staff members in the Employee Disability Resources office, along with similar accounts from other teachers, compelled faculty groups across campus to seek clarification on whether an unwritten blanket policy denying most all requests is in place.

The University Committee, a small group of professors who represent the Faculty Senate in meetings with UW-Madison administrators, expects to discuss the topic at its Monday meeting, chair Eric Sandgren said.

“If we’re saying there are options, we have to make certain that it’s possible to get those options,” he said, adding that he has heard from instructors who were successful and others who were unsuccessful in seeking remote teaching accommodations.

UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone denied any wholesale rejection of accommodation requests.

“The university is committed to careful and thoughtful review of each accommodation request and meeting its full requirements under state and federal law,” she said in a statement. “There has been no blanket policy dictating the results of accommodation requests. As the law requires, the university reviews each request individually on the specific circumstances involved and responds accordingly.”

McGlone said the university as of Friday had received about 30 instructor requests, roughly half of which had been “granted with accommodations including additional protective measures and/or alternate work assignments.” She was unable to clarify whether rejecting a request to teach online but offering an alternative accommodation, such as providing N95 masks, qualifies as granted or denied.

Accounts of denial

The concern among faculty groups for UW-Madison’s most vulnerable instructors comes as the delta variant of the coronavirus drives COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin to a level not seen since last winter. Masks are required in classes, unvaccinated individuals must test weekly, and more than 66,000 students and staff have been vaccinated. Still, there’s no social distancing requirements and more than 90% of classes are scheduled to be taught in person.

Timothy Yu, who leads the UW-Madison chapter of the American Association of University Professors, has heard from at least five instructors with disabilities or medical conditions seeking accommodations who were told that online teaching requests were being rejected. The group sent a letter to Chancellor Rebecca Blank and Provost John Karl Scholz earlier this month raising concerns.

“We’ve been told again and again that if individuals have concerns, use the accommodations process,” Yu said. “But what we’re hearing is that people in good faith are going through this process and before they even ask for that, employees are telling them the policy’s been set to not approve these requests. It’s a clear violation of faculty rights.”

Professor Michael Bernard-Donals, who is president of the university’s faculty advocacy group known as PROFS, said he knew of about a dozen instances where instructors have requested the flexibility to teach online this fall due to a medical condition, disability or family member who is immunocompromised.

In all but one case, he said, those requests have either been denied, or the instructors said they were told their requests would be denied.

“We’re trying to work with university administration to make them aware that the policy they have in place is creating hardship for faculty and academic staff who have concerns about their health and the health of their loved ones,” Bernard-Donals said.

UW-Madison’s COVID-19 website notes that employees are not entitled to accommodations for a family member’s underlying medical condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

McGlone said instructors can work with their department chair, supervisor or human resources department to see if there is a remote work assignment suited to meet the business needs of their unit or additional personal protective equipment available for in-person work.

Discouraging conversations

Likely not included in the UW-Madison data showing roughly half of accommodation requests being rejected are instructors like Sara Trongone, who said she was so discouraged by her conversation with the Employee Disability Resources office that she didn’t proceed with her remote teaching request.

The teaching assistant has Crohn’s disease and said she is considered at high risk of contracting COVID-19 not because of her medical condition but because she takes medication that impairs her immune response. She recently received a booster shot of the vaccine.

Trongone began the process of seeking an online teaching accommodation but said her disability representative told her that all requests were being denied.

“I withdrew because I was told there’s no way this is going to go though,” she said.

Another instructor described a similar conversation with a disability representative. The State Journal agreed not to identify the professor or provide identifying details of the related disability because of a fear that speaking out could jeopardize the case.

In a third case, English professor Ellen Samuels learned on Tuesday that her request to teach online had been approved despite being told her chances of approval were slim.

Samuels has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a genetic condition that limits her ability to walk, among other activities. It also disrupts her autonomic nervous system, which controls automatic body processes such as breathing and regulation of body temperature.

Since joining the faculty in 2007, Samuels has received disability accommodations, such as a reserved parking spot close to the campus building housing her office and a teaching schedule without morning classes because her blood pressure is unstable during that time of the day.

Heat is a trigger for Samuels’ condition, so wearing a mask and standing for long periods of time can be difficult. She requested flexibility to teach her fall class partially online.

Samuels said her disability representative told her she would try to get Samuels the accommodation but noted that she hadn’t gotten anyone else’s request approved. The direction from campus leaders, based on Samuels’ account of the conversation with her disability representative, was to deny requests because teaching in person is an “essential function” of the job.

Legality questioned

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” to individuals with disabilities who are qualified to fulfill the “essential functions” of a given job.

Ruth Colker, an Ohio State University law professor and expert on disability law, questioned the legality of any university arguing that teaching in person is essential, considering many schools offered online learning pre-pandemic and provided mostly online learning all of last year yet continued to collect full tuition from students.

“You can’t have it both ways,” she said.

Samuels said she didn’t receive an explanation for why her request was granted contrary to what her disability representative had indicated. But she noted that she is an outspoken disability advocate.

Samuels helped establish the university’s Disability Studies Initiative, recently criticized an East Coast university’s policy denying all remote teaching requests to a national higher education publication and called out UW-Madison on social media this month for engaging in what she sees as a similar strategy, which was shared nearly 650 times.

“I can’t say why my case was resolved and I do appreciate it,” she said. “But I’m still hearing from other people, including many junior faculty, that requests are either getting denied or slow-walked.”

6 lives disrupted: How COVID-19 changed Madison

The torrent of disruption to daily life over the past year has been inescapable.

Calendar squares filled with weddings and events cleared. Vacations vanished. Schools shuttered and hand sanitizer was in short supply. We learned new words, like social distancing, herd immunity and doomscrolling. 

COVID-19 affected every person, every family. It's taken nearly 6,500 Wisconsinites from us, including 278 in Dane County.

Here are six stories from people whose lives and jobs changed over the past year.

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“Reporting the death counts out day after day was draining,” she said. “It felt like I was announcing a funeral every day.”

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"I was getting my work done from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. every day," she said.

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Rev. Marcus Allen knew what bringing everyone together could do for their spiritual and mental health. But each time he considered reopening the church, COVID-19 cases surged.

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"We’re used to taking whatever comes through the door," said nurse Maria Hanson, who started journaling about the pandemic soon after treating the patient.

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"It’s a risk vs. reward thing and I risk my life to save others," said Brandon Jones, who always worried about bringing the virus home to his wife and two kids.

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“Usually a funeral is a major step in understanding that a life was lived and the person is now gone,” he said. “If families don’t get that, it’s just really hard.”


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