Teaching during COVID—ADA Considerations

LaWanda H. Cook August 18, 2020

As the world continues to grapple with the risks and restrictions caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the school year is about to begin. Some school districts will offer classes virtually, others face-to-face, and still others will do so through a hybrid approach. Regardless of the format, teachers will be required to plan and deliver lessons, engage students, and fulfill other obligations of their positions. This is a challenging and concerning time—especially for teachers with disabilities and/or chronic health conditions.

An estimated 1 in 4 teachers in the United States are at increased risk for serious illness if infected with the coronavirus, according to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). This estimate includes educators age 65+, or with underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or moderate or severe asthma, as well several other conditions identified by the Centers for Disease Control. In addition to their own health concerns, understandably, they may be worried about keeping their family members and students safe from infection.

Many teachers who taught virtually this spring may believe they need to continue doing so in the fall, even if their school district has decided on in-person instruction. If the option of online teaching is not generally available, and a teacher has a disability or chronic health condition, a work-from-home request or other types of adjustments to how work is done, could be a reasonable accommodation.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has updated its guidance on COVID-19 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), clarifying how to accommodate individuals at increased risk for severe illness from the virus. Employers are obligated to address known accommodation needs; therefore, it is the employee’s responsibility to request an accommodation. If an employee with a disability requests an accommodation, the employer and employee may discuss:

  • How the disability limits work performance. The employer may request medical documentation if a disability is not obvious.
  • How the requested accommodation will effectively address the limitation.
  • Whether another accommodation could solve the issue.
  • How the proposed accommodation will enable the employee to continue performing the essential job functions.

Teachers may find it helpful to work with their union representatives to determine possible solutions. Ultimately, the employer makes the final decision as to whether the requested accommodation is reasonable. This means they may provide an accommodation that differs from the one requested by the employee, as long as the provided accommodation is effective.