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The Great Divide

Teachers at high risk for coronavirus still don’t know whether they’ll be allowed to work remotely

Virus’ disproportionate impact on Black and Latino communities could have implications for teacher diversity

Nicole Mullen is one of many teachers asking to continue working remotely, during the continuing coronavirus pandemic.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The week before school starts is usually a joyous, if frantic, time of year for Boston teacher Katie Caster, but these days she mostly just feels scared.

As someone with diabetes and a compromised immune system, the middle school science teacher is worried she may have to leave teaching to protect her health — since she is at such high risk for severe complications from COVID-19. Caster, 37, who has taught for 14 years, is still waiting to learn if her request to teach remotely has been granted.

“I really don’t know how the chips are going to land,” said Caster, who teaches at the Perry K-8 School in South Boston. “In some districts, teachers have been granted accommodations, and there are other districts where teachers have not, with similar diagnoses.”


While most districts have given teachers an answer, scores of educators across the state are still in limbo, waiting to hear whether their own, or loved ones', preexisting health conditions qualify them to work remotely, adding mightily to the confusion of the most tumultuous back-to-school season in modern history.

Without state guidance for how districts should handle this issue, teachers in different communities face a variety of responses — on a variety of timelines, according to Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts. Several have yet to finalize teachers' assignments, including Boston, Lowell, and others, Kontos said.

For instance, while some districts will be granting accommodations across all grades, North Attleborough said that no teachers above elementary school will be allowed to work remotely, prompting several teacher resignations, according to teacher’s union officials there.

This uncertainty can have a trickle-down effect on families anxiously waiting to learn who will be available to teach their children, and how many students will have access to in-person offerings.

“It’s just creating more chaos,” Kontos said. “I don’t know why they have to drag it out and be so difficult about something that is, for some people, life-threatening.”


The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education told districts in late June to form committees to address staffing issues, including supporting teachers facing high risks for COVID. But the state hasn’t released any other guidance, leaving decisions up to the districts as long as they follow state and federal employment laws.

Meanwhile, educators and advocates say they are worried about the long-term impacts of COVID on teacher diversity. Due to racial wealth gaps and a variety of other social and health factors, Black and Latino people are more likely to have many of the preexisting conditions associated with higher morbidity from COVID: including heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. They are also more likely to teach at schools in communities with high coronavirus rates.

Although state teachers union officials say they haven’t yet compiled the racial breakdowns of teachers requesting work-at-home accommodations, “we could lose our most senior teachers and our teachers of color, who are most likely to be the most vulnerable,” said Sarah Iddrissu, executive director of the advocacy group Educators for Excellence. "I’m concerned about the long-term brain drain — teacher experience and teacher diversity are two things that affect student outcomes.”

Given what the data shows about the disproportionate impacts of COVID on Latino and Black communities, “I think we can safely assume our educators of color have experienced a disproportionate impact in their lives," said Mariel Novas, a former Boston teacher who oversees partnerships in Massachusetts for The Education Trust, a national nonprofit.


In Boston, where schools reopen remotely districtwide next Monday, 42 percent of teachers are people of color, more than any other district in the state.

Boston school officials refused to say how many teachers have asked to work remotely, but Jessica Tang, the president of the Boston Teachers Union, estimated that 10 to 15 percent of teachers — or between 420 and 630 — will need remote accommodations. Many teachers' decisions hinge on evolving district safety efforts.

District officials say they are currently sifting through the requests to work from home, and plan to notify employees this week whether they will be approved.

A memorandum of understanding signed with the union last week suggests that first priority for remote teaching requests will likely fall to a high-risk group defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes pregnancy, cancer, diabetes, and asthma.

The second priority will likely be educators with a household member who is high risk; third priority is those with child-care issues.

The district plans to start the year remotely, bringing back students with the highest needs Oct. 1. Under the current plan, as many students as possible will be given the option to return at least two days a week by late November.

District officials say they will base their decisions on the priority ranking laid out in the union agreement, as well as the employee’s specific disability, job function, and student and school needs.


“The district is especially focused on students, family members, and employees who have underlying health conditions," a spokesman said in a statement. “And we are deeply aware that Massachusetts data shows that Black and Latinx members of our community are especially vulnerable.”

Sharon Harrison, a school nurse at the William Carter School, which has no Black teachers, said she believes educators of color were “definitely” hit hardest by COVID. Harrison, who is Black, has seen the disparate impacts firsthand, just in her circle of friends.

Now as her school reopens, she faces a tough situation: She wants to take care of her mother, who was recently diagnosed with cancer; but she also wants to care for her students, who are largely in special education and might not be wearing masks due to their disabilities.

For financial reasons, taking a leave is not an option. So Harrison plans to wear a surgical mask, gown, and face shield with her students, and don a separate set again with her mother. “That’s the best I can do," she said.

Caster, who is Latinx, said she dreads the possibility of requesting a leave.

“Being a woman of color and being immuno-compromised, I’d like to think that I am valuable enough and that I’ve taught enough to be wanted,” she said. “I don’t want to take a leave. I want to be there for the kids."


Boston teachers say they are hoping that with half the kids in the district having expressed a preference to stay online this fall, at least, the district will be able to accommodate all of the educators who asked to work at home.

“We could very easily rework how we organize students,” said Nicole Mullen, a special education teacher at Boston Arts Academy. She has a respiratory condition that her doctor told her makes her high-risk for COVID complications. Mullen submitted a request to work remotely in mid-August, and is now anxiously waiting.

Federal guidance suggests employers should try to accommodate workers who are high-risk themselves, unless the accommodation would cause significant difficulty or expense. It does not require employers to accommodate workers with high-risk family members.

In an e-mailed statement, district officials wrote such workers could consider other options if requests to work remotely aren’t approved; those include “safe social distancing, consistent use of personal protective equipment, r requesting a leave of absence.”

Both returning to a school building or requesting a leave are terrifying prospects for Ross Kochman, a fifth-grade teacher at Henderson Inclusion School in Dorchester; Kochman’s wife has an auto-immune disease.

“I don’t want to take a leave of absence — I love teaching, I want to see my students,” Kochman said, his voice shaking. “But right now it doesn’t seem like that’s an option and ultimately I can’t put my wife’s life at risk.”

Naomi Martin can be reached at