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DOE Lays Down the Law to Microbes and Broken Bones

If you are an appointed teacher and get sick, the contract allows you to be absent from school for a total of 10 days during the school year. If you have days in your “bank” of unused sick days accumulated from past years, you may take those days off for verifiable illness beyond those 10 days. There is also a provision for “borrowing” sick days if necessary. Of course nobody should apply for any benefit under false pretenses.

This “sick day” allowance is realistic and makes common sense. It is fair though not generous.

Research has shown that adults who work with children have a far greater than average exposure to common infections. It has been statistically demonstrated that they are even more at risk than are doctors, nurses and hospital workers. Many schools are overheated and poorly ventilated in winter because windows can’t be opened and the furnace is on full blast.

Kids often cough and sneeze openly while jammed in narrow hallways during change of classes or are confined in the close quarters of a trailer or classroom. A percentage of these kids may come from countries from which there is added risk of proliferation of disease because poverty and the lack of available quality medical care may have precluded children from being properly immunized.

Good people get sick or hurt. It is not “unprofessional” or insubordinate to get the flu or to require surgery. And it is not for the principal to judge whether a person claiming sickness is sick enough to be absent.

But some principals are now sending letters to staff members warning them of the consequences of future absence after those educators have been out 5 or 6 days over many months. The letters are not for file, but they are outrageously provocative. Principals have been known to give “U” ratings for poor attendance based on a few extra days during which the staff member was critically ill.

Grim statistics indicate that these ratings are among the most difficult to overturn regardless of the merits of the case and even if the educator has no history of attendance abuse. The rating can threaten their livelihood, or at least cost them significant income because of frozen salary steps or ineligibility for per session employment.

By showing callousness, some principals feel they are simply fulfilling the DOE’s implicit mandate for being a strong leader who makes tough decisions.

Our contracts are legal documents and the hard-fought rights and protections that are built into them are integral to the dignity of our workplace. There can be no consent to their abrogation.

Passivity and acquiescence are inexcusable. If they are adopted as optional responses, then countless other clauses of the contract will eventually be targeted. In some schools, certain rules for programming and other areas are already being eroded by lack of enforcement.

It is imperative that the school chapter thwart any principal who tries to create contractual “loop holes” where there are none. If you indulge in appeasement, then those “loop holes” will eventually rip our contractual garment to shreds.

It takes inordinate courage to assert basic freedoms under the Klein era. But it is absolutely vital to the survival and prestige of our profession for us to stand firm and never give in to brute intimidation.

Is your staff united? Do they stick together against invidious attempts to divide and conquer? Do they practice a “one for all/all for one” philosophy? Some individuals may, for either idealistic or cynical reasons, choose to “go it alone” and work out a secret personalized deal to advance themselves even at the expense of their professional colleagues. That danger must be met head-on.

Never seek conflict. Always pursue harmony in all your dealings at school. Be a force for conciliation and partnership. But if you are forced to fight, then do so with all the tenacity and cunning that your collective discernment and passion demands.

Your school is the home front. That is where your defense begins. The whole union will fight with you as you fight for yourselves.



  • 1 phyllis c. murray
    · Jan 12, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    “Research has shown that adults who work with children have a far greater than average exposure to common infections. It has been statistically demonstrated that they are even more at risk than are doctors, nurses and hospital workers.” – Ron Isaac

    The statement above is right on target. Surely, one can understand that many problems begin to fester once personnel and students are denied opportunities to wash their hands. Hence, the soap dispensers must be filled with soap in school restrooms; paper towels and toilet paper must also be provided. In that way one can prevent the spread of salmonella, campylobacter and e.coli. as well as a myriad number of contagious diseases which often spread rapidly throughout a school. See “Dirty Hands Poison Thousands”

    Teachers, paraprofessionals et al are working with children. Therefore, it is imperative that one does all that he/she can, at every turn, to ensure that a safe and healthy school environment is maintained. A healthy environment should be everyone’s concern. This will require the cooperation and investment of all concerned parties involved. The School’s Safety and Health Committee must work. It’s elementary.

    Phyllis C. Murray,
    UFT Chapter Leader

  • 2 Ron Isaac
    · Jan 14, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    As always, Ms. Murray is right on target.
    It is a disgrace that the DOE acts with such reckless abandon when it comes to the health and safety of staff members and students. If only they spent their energies on those vital matters to the same extent as they currently squander it on test prep, etc.

  • 3 Teacher31231
    · Jan 15, 2009 at 7:11 am

    I believe the UFT should broaden their education to members on the A.D.A., especially now that it’s recently been amended. I myself suffer from a disability and have found that it’s very hard to deal with the DOE but it should be much easier now. Although there has been a problem (I’m told) with the DOE trying to find people unfit for duty in the past, this should not be so today.

    If you first seek the protection of the ADA (by informing your employer of your disability and asking for accommodations) you have great protections. This was NOT so prior to 13 days ago, due to the fact that “disability” was a relative word. The DOE could find you “unfit” for things such as seizures and cancer because courts would often not find that they were “disabilities.” Thanks to President Bush and the Democratic Congress working together, as of January 1st, 2009 the A.D.A. was amended so that even diseases and illnesses that are sporadic or episodic have become covered under the protections and job fortifications of the ADA.

    The onus is on the employer to make sure they do everything they can to accommodate people with disabilities, instead of what the DOE did before, try to find a way to not consider conditions as disabilities. It makes it very difficult to find people unfit for duty and easier to assert claims of disability discrimination.

    Just another couple notes:
    1. You must inform your principal of your disability and ask for help in the form of accommodations before your job is at.
    2. Sadly the new law is probably NOT retroactive. The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) will test the law in court soon.
    3. This doesn’t help with colds, flu, etc. but conditions such as Cancer, Chron’s Disease, High-Blood Pressure and a thousand more that are sporadic or episodic are NOW covered under the ADA.

    For more information members can contact JAN (Job Accommodation Network). They’re great on the phone and email.


    David Irons