‘A person, not a statistic’: Berkeley teachers discuss reopening

Teachers expressed concerns around BUSD regulations on reopening schools and teaching remotely at a press conference Tuesday.

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Previously approved accommodation letters to teach from home will no longer be considered satisfactory by the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, for teachers who wish to continue teaching remotely.

Yvette Felarca, an English language development teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School spoke at a Tuesday press conference hosted by Equal Opportunity Now/By Any Means Necessary. Felarca said she provided a doctor’s letter certifying her underlying health condition — which puts her at high risk for sickness and death if infected with COVID-19 — in January, which was approved by BUSD, in February and allowed her to continue teaching from home to the end of the school year.

In the first week of March, however, Felarca said she received a letter from human resources demanding that her doctor “conjecture” on the impact vaccination will have on her condition in order to continue receiving accommodations to teach virtually. She alleged that the letter violates her right to privacy.

“There is no doctor or health official who can make an accurate definitive conjecture on what impact the vaccine will have on an individual with underlying conditions who are exposed to COVID-19,” Felarca said at the press conference.

BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott said in an email that BUSD is following federal guidelines for individuals who have requested accommodations. McDermott declined to comment further.

Felarca added that she opposes the reopening of schools when students have not been vaccinated.

“We know that children can become infected by and transmit coronavirus, so they can become sick and they can die from COVID-19,” Felarca said at the conference. “We know there’s especially high rates of child hospitalization in Black and Latino communities and a huge disparity in deaths.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School special education teacher Linda Clark said at the press conference that she was “shocked and upset” when she found out BUSD was reopening schools.

Clark said she had been under the assumption that she could get accommodations and be safe at home until the end of May. After contracting COVID-19 twice and losing 14% of her lung capacity, Clark said she is “terrified” of getting it again.

“I don’t want to be collateral damage,” Clark said at the conference. “I’m a person, not a statistic, and I’ve devoted 23 years of service to this district. I feel badly treated at this moment in time.”

Amy Talley is also a teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and is the parent of three children enrolled in BUSD schools.

She said the district is “steadfastly applying rules” to accommodation requests — rules that do not apply during the pandemic, which she said is a “fluid and new” situation.

“I would really like the public to understand this is a risk,” Talley said at the conference.

Erica Contreras, a parent and staff at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School said she is not comfortable returning to school because she is the first person that students have contact with when they are sick or come to school late. 

Contreras, a single mom of three, added that she is worried about putting herself and her children at risk. Contreras alleged that she was told to either “try to get an accommodation” or take unpaid leave when she asked BUSD what her options were.

“I shouldn’t have to be pressured to decide whether I want to expose my children and myself to COVID or sacrifice my only income so I can stay at home with my kids,” Contreras said at the conference. “We’re losing income or jobs just because we have decided to keep our family safe, and that shouldn’t be the case.”

Contact Iris Kwok at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @iriskkwok.