Fearing COVID-19, educators go up against colleges to teach remotely

Two instructors who taught at Athens Technical College have been in a dispute with the school over what medical documentation is needed to teach remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Two instructors who taught at Athens Technical College have been in a dispute with the school over what medical documentation is needed to teach remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Crystal Robinson and Vanessa Williams aren’t teaching at Athens Technical College this semester because of a dispute that highlights the ongoing battle in Georgia and other states between educators and administrators over allowances for employees who are worried about being infected with COVID-19 to work remotely.

Both instructors submitted letters several months ago from their physicians saying they had medical conditions that could increase their chances of being infected with the disease if they were on campus.

The college says the instructors were slow or didn’t respond to information they asked for to review their requests.

Many educators believe Georgia’s public college systems should approve any requests to teach remotely without the need for any documentation amid the pandemic since COVID-19 has no known cure. The University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia, which oversees operations at Athens Tech, allow faculty to teach remotely, but may require documentation before approval. Neither system said they have data documenting how many requests have been denied.

ExploreGeorgia professors press for flexibility to teach remotely

The United Campus Workers of Georgia, a union of system staffers, has frequently demanded schools allow faculty who desire to teach online as a health precaution to do so.

“I don’t think they understand the science behind the pandemic,” said Williams, 59, who taught anatomy and physiology at Athens Tech for five years. “I don’t think they understand how everyone’s body is going to react.”

University System officials said in a statement its schools are following federal health guidance for managing COVID-19-related issues involving age and underlying medical conditions.

Technical College System officials said they are trying to offer safe learning environments.

“TCSG colleges are unique in that a substantial amount of instruction requires in-person laboratory environments that must be closely monitored by faculty,” the system said. “It is not unreasonable to request documentation by a medical professional that explains the health condition of the person making the request so that we may carefully tailor the accommodation made. We certainly understand the challenges that this pandemic has presented to everyone and are committed to making appropriate accommodations for those with legitimate health issues.”

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Similar disputes are occurring in other states as professors ask for accommodations to teach remotely. Many colleges and universities have rules like Georgia’s that seek some documentation. As in Georgia, faculty members have complained about the fairness of the approval process.

At least two Georgia university employees — a University of Georgia worker and a Georgia Southern University faculty member — have died from COVID-19, according to published reports. There were at least 150 reported positive employee cases in August, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of some Georgia university websites shows. University System officials and the schools have declined to discuss the severity of positive cases or specific cases, citing federal health privacy guidelines.

Williams sent letters to the college seeking an accommodation to teach remotely each time Gov. Brian Kemp extended his order regulating operations for Georgia businesses during the pandemic. Williams said she has an unspecified medical condition that applies to Kemp’s shelter-in-place order.

Vanessa Williams, a former instructor at Athens Technical College, stand for a portrait in Athens, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Vanessa Williams, a former instructor at Athens Technical College, stand for a portrait in Athens, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

On Aug. 12, the college sent Williams a letter asking to speak to her doctor. The letter also included classroom safety measures, such as a private office for Williams, plexiguards and air purifiers in the classroom.

Williams, who sent the school a letter from her doctor in early May recommending she shelter in place, said she did not respond to the letter requesting to speak to her doctor because she worried her medical information could be shared by college officials.

Robinson’s doctors sent the college letters in May and August saying she is immunosuppressed, meaning she has a weakened immune system and a reduced ability to fight infections and other diseases.

“As a result, we recommended that Crystal be allowed to work from home for the foreseeable future in the setting of the COVID-19 pandemic,” each letter said. “If additional information is needed, please contact our office.”

Crystal Robinson, a former instructor at Athens Technical College, stands for a portrait in Athens, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Crystal Robinson, a former instructor at Athens Technical College, stands for a portrait in Athens, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020. Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Robinson, 41, who taught in the same department as Williams, received an Aug. 10 letter listing the same safety precautions and was asked to sign a waiver to speak to her doctor.

Robinson agrees the college should require medical documentation. However, she said the college isn’t abiding by Kemp’s order that requires the medically fragile shelter in place. Robinson said she didn’t think she needed to sign the waiver because the letter from her doctor offered to answer any questions.

“The (doctor notices) plainly stated the accommodation needed to last the entirety of the pandemic,” Robinson said. “Also, the notification allowed for Athens Tech to contact the doctor with questions. I was allowed to teach online during the summer semester as well.”

Technical College System officials say they needed more information about the underlying conditions of both instructors. They describe their accommodation rules as “common sense policy” and believe they are making a good-faith effort to accommodate instructors who don’t want to teach in person.

“We have gone the extra mile on these accommodation requests,” said Josh McKoon, the system’s general counsel.

Robinson is currently unemployed. Williams is working part time at Western Governors University, an online school, evaluating student lab reports.

Nina Gupta, who specializes in education law at Nelson Mullins, a national firm with an office in Atlanta, said the schools and employees have compelling arguments but said schools need some documentation to process these requests. Gupta said schools must have early, clear and constant communication with employees about the policies.

“No one really knows who this virus is going to hit,” Gupta said. “And no one really knows how it’s going to hit them. There’s a lot of conflicting information coming to us from a lot of different sources. That being said, medical documentation may not be always a perfect barometer, but you’ve got to have a barometer.”