CABARRUS COUNTY — When students walk into class Monday, Christin McDowell will not be on campus and she won’t be teaching.
McDowell is a high school teacher at the Performance Learning Center in Cabarrus County, and she is one of a number of educators who will not be on campus due to health concerns.
She filed a request last week for a chance to teach virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, but she was denied. She says she was not the only one.
“I was expecting to be denied based on the fact that I had been in communication with many other teachers in the district who were similarly denied,” said McDowell in a phone call Wednesday. McDowell’s asthma puts her in the at-risk category for COVID-19. “Many of them have much more serious health conditions, in my opinion.”
At the Cabarrus County Board of Education’s regular meeting Monday, the public got a chance to speak for the first time since schools were shut down as educational buildings in March.
A couple of individuals brought up concerns with teachers being denied a chance to teach from home when Cabarrus County Schools reopens under Gov. Roy Cooper’s Plan B (some virtual learning, some in-person learning) next week.
“I am the proud daughter of a Cabarrus County Schools teacher and I cannot understand why your board is denying disabled and high health-risk teachers the equitable accommodation of teaching from home,” Elizabeth Kingaby said. “I understand that you don’t want to allow teachers to teach from home simply out of fear of catching COVID-19. My mother’s fear is not simple and your denial of her and teachers like her is discriminatory.
“There are Cabarrus County teachers with major pre-existing medical conditions that make catching this virus inequitably dangerous.”
One person even went so far as to say these denials have been across the board.
“How are we going to keep our at-risk teachers safe?” Crystal Swayze, a parent in the district, asked. “Multiple teachers in our district have been denied their concerns and their doctor’s recommendations.
“At present, no teacher in Cabarrus County Schools has been approved for a remote-teaching option due to health concerns. These aren’t just concerns about how to safely return, but real health emergencies.
“We have teachers who simply can’t return to a classroom setting during COVID-19. They’ve had, or have cancer, heart issues, blood disorders and the list goes on. These aren’t minor issues, but truly life and death health issues and risks.”
The school district has given teachers the chance to submit their concerns to the Human Resources department, but Cabarrus County Schools would not say what the outcome for those submissions have been in totality.
“Privacy laws prohibit the district from sharing information about specific employees,” CCS Director of Communications and Public Information Ronnye Boone said in an email Tuesday. “However, all requests for accommodations are given careful attention, and decisions are based on the facts of each particular case.”
McDowell said she had voiced her concerns to her principal before there was even a consideration to go back to Plan B — all schools in Cabarrus County began the year under Gov. Cooper’s fully remote Plan C — but she had to go directly through Human Resources to express her issues with getting back onto campus despite her principal’s support of her request.
After speaking with her principal and finding out the process of submitting her concerns to the Human Resources department, she filled out a form on the website, had a portion of it sent to her doctor who then filled it out on their end and attached a letter as well.
“I submitted it last Thursday,” she said, “and I received my denial after 9 p.m. Friday evening.”
Research has shown several specific groups as being at-risk due to the novel coronavirus. Those aged 65 and older, the immunosuppressant and those with pre-existing conditions are particular vulnerable.
In Cabarrus County alone, according to the Health Alliance’s most recent data that was updated Oct. 2, 12.4% of those 65 and older who have contracted COVID-19 have died. There are teachers and staff in that category in the school district.
McDowell isn’t asking the district just to pay her not to work. She wants to teach, and she just believes she can educate from home. More than 30% of families who responded in a survey about coming back to school said they would keep their children at home when CCS brings students back next week.
She simply asks why at-risk teachers can’t teach those students in a virtual environment as they have done very effectively to start the year.
“We have a substantial number of students who have the option of remaining 100% remote, a significant number of my students are remaining 100% remote, and under Plan B 2.0 those students will actually receive less face time with their teacher than they are currently,” she said. “So what has been discussed is the idea of re-rostering the teachers who have a high-risk condition with students who have opted to remain remote for reasons such as family risks or other factors.”
McDowell says this could have planned out better than it was.
“They could have started by surveying their staff like other districts did, such as CMS, to determine the percentage of teachers who fell into high-risk categories and that would have been a starting place that they could have done in the summer even,” she said.
Students will return to class starting Monday in Plan B for all grade levels in Cabarrus County. They will be split into two groups by Alpha (Group No. 1 A-K; Group No. 2 L-Z) and will have face-to-face learning twice a week.
All students will learn remotely on Fridays.
But at least a few teachers like McDowell will not be in attendance. She said she is seeking FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) and her students will not get to see her. She was told, in fact, her students will not be able to have any contact with her.
She said she does not know who will take over her classes. She teaches more than 60% of the student body at the Performance Learning Center.
“I am hopeful that the district will change their minds,” she said. “I am hopeful that I will be able to remain in a position or be returned to that remote position because my students are very sad, and I am devastated.”
She continued: “I believe teachers can be partners in all of this. There’s no reason we don’t want to teach. We want to teach and be safe until we get past this.”
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