1,150 NISD employees applied to work remotely this school year, nearly a quarter were denied

District claims it took ’great care’ in giving employees chance to seek medical waivers

District claims it took ’great care’ in giving employees chance to seek medical waivers

SAN ANTONIO – Nearly a quarter of all employees at San Antonio’s largest school district who applied to work remotely this school year amid COVID-19 concerns were denied, according to district figures provided to the KSAT 12 Defenders.

Northside Independent School District officials defended the large number of denials, claiming they took “great care” in giving employees the chance to seek medical waivers for the 2020-2021 school year.

Out of 1,150 employees who submitted applications to work remotely, 278, or 24% of them, were denied, NISD records show. There were 39 applications still pending as of late last month.

“It’s not like we don’t want to serve our kids.”

A Harlan High School teacher, who asked that she remain anonymous in order to protect her and her husband’s medical information, was twice denied by NISD officials after applying to work from home.

In an Aug. 14 denial letter, NISD’s assistant superintendent for Human Resources wrote to the teacher that her anxiety disorder did not qualify as a listed concern for contracting COVID-19.

“So I said, ’Well, let me submit it under my husband, because I know he’s got a medical condition,’” the teacher said.

The husband’s condition, an auto-immune disorder, requires him to take medication that suppresses his immune system, increasing his chances that he would get very ill if he contracts the virus.

The teacher said her second application was delayed because it took several days longer than expected to get her husband’s signed medical records since the doctor was unavailable.

“They (NISD) came back and said ’Oh, we’re declining your second request to work from home because it was submitted after the deadline,” the teacher said.

The teacher said district officials late last month reversed their decision and approved one of her applications to work remotely, but by then she had already applied for medical leave.

After informing Harlan’s administration Aug. 21 that she would be taking sick days until hearing back on her Family and Medical Leave Act application, Principal Robert Harris wrote via email, “Thank you for informing me of your intent not to serve our students on the first day of school. For the record, you have failed to report (to) campus as instructed and now on Friday after 5:00 PM you inform me by email that you will not report on Monday. This gives us no time to prepare to serve our students on Monday. Have a great weekend.”

The Harlan High School teacher said she was troubled by Principal Robert Harris' email. (KSAT)

Recalling how she felt after receiving the email from Harris, the teacher got emotional.

“It made me feel very upset because I spent a lot of time during in-service prepping and working with my team,” said the teacher, who added that she had been in regular communication with NISD’s benefits department for weeks.

An NISD spokesman defended Harris’ email, telling the Defenders late last month that it was taken out of context.

After the Defenders told the spokesman they were in possession of the entire email thread, he responded:

The principal was acknowledging receipt of the employee’s email - sent after 5 p.m. on Aug. 21, the Friday before the start of school - that they would not be at school for the first day with students. The email went on to acknowledge that because of the late notice provided by the employee, the campus had no time to prepare to serve students on the first day. The sentence was not intended to be offensive but was intended as acknowledgement of the employee’s notice.

“With the interactions that I’ve had the past week, I don’t want to go back. I would rather do any other job right now then go back to a negative, horrible environment, where I feel like I’m just going to be singled out every day,” the teacher said.

The teacher said her immediate plan is to take FMLA for 12 weeks and then reassess her work situation, taking into account COVID-19 numbers at that time.

Asked about the Harlan teacher’s experience with applying to work from home, the spokesman said via email:

Due to privacy constraints, we will not discuss specific individual employee information. Northside ISD took great care in offering employees the opportunity to seek a medical waiver allowing them to work from home if eligibility requirements were met. Employees were asked to provide documentation of a pre-existing medical condition for themselves or for a member of their family living with them. In evaluating applications for this waiver, NISD used guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for those underlying conditions placing an individual at higher risk. Employees whose applications were denied had the opportunity to appeal the decision. In addition to this district program, employees may also meet eligibility for approved leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Records reviewed by the Defenders show NISD personnel approved to work from home will be required to return if the principal or director requests them in the workplace due to student or district needs.

NISD began to bring back small numbers of students Tuesday, in what was described by officials as a tiered approach to ensure student and staff safety.

“The incidents are going to rise.”

School district personnel concerned about returning to campus is not an issue unique to NISD.

Tom Cummins, president of the Bexar County Federation of Teachers, said his union’s position is that remote learning should continue until at least January at every district.

Tom Cummins of the Bexar County Federation of Teachers. (KSAT)

“School districts and schools are not in isolation. They’re part of the community,” said Cummins, who represents staff at multiple school districts including North East ISD, but not NISD.

While Cummins conceded that online learning has “huge deficits” compared to face-to-face instruction, he said safety should continue to be the paramount consideration.

“For the last six months, students have been at home not circulating in the community. Now they’re out. The incidents are going to rise,” Cummins said.

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy-nominated photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.