The opening of schools is fast approaching. And still there is not any real clarity about what that is going to look like once Labor Day rolls around. COVID-19 has proven to be an elusive antagonist, capable of destroying lives and plans in a matter of days.
I think that most of us want to see schools open safely this fall so that children and teenagers, not to mention college students, can get back to learning in a typical academic environment that makes learning exciting and satisfying.
But as it stands now, there remains uncertainty about the prospects of getting back to school in a safe way that assures sufficient learning opportunities for students. I don’t think it is impossible, I just think it is uncertain.
And in the discussion about how it is going to be done, policy makers are concerned most importantly about our students. But there is also concern about teachers, administrators, and staff and their varied health concerns. And these are legitimate concerns. We do not want to be responsible for sending valuable public servants into a hospital or a grave. But we know that according to CDC figures, 6.4 of every 100,000 U.S. residents between the ages of 5 and 17 are hospitalized for COVID disease. For those between the ages of 50 and 64, the number skyrockets to 196 per 100,000. Those between 40 and 49 are hospitalized at a rate of 131 per 100,000.
So from a risk perspective, kids are relatively risk-free. They are not immune of course, but their risk is significantly lower than the rest of the population based upon figures we have received from the CDC to date.
The real concerns then about opening schools are related to our school employees over the age of 40 who are presented with significant risks of illness that can lead to hospitalization.
Our knowledge about COVID continues to evolve. And we often are left to wonder if anyone has a real handle on this disease. Clearly health officials are doing their best to understand how to best prevent transmission, and how to reduce risk all members of the population.
But living in a time of COVID is not a risk-free endeavor. And the worst-case scenario for every one of us is death, followed closely by long-term if not lifetime debilitation.
So what do we do about employees who are unwilling to take the risk of going back to work? What do we owe them as a society? Can we reasonably demand that they make the Hobson’s choice of either going back to work or risking severe illness or death? Nobody signed up for that when they chose their jobs and careers.
The Connecticut Department of Labor currently advises that if an employee is unwilling to take the risk of returning to work and if the person is at “high-risk” or who “might be at high-risk” for “severe illness from COVID-19,” the person will be eligible for unemployment benefits including any extensions and supplements.
However, that does not guarantee that your job will remain open. An employee in this situation may be able to take advantage of FMLA leave for the maximum statutory period in order to hold his or her job open. Alternatively, the employee may be able to seek and obtain “reasonable accommodations” for a disability related to COVID risk.
There are options available for those who work in the education system. Consulting with a lawyer will help you better understand your options.