The ADA and COVID | Confessions of a Neighborhood School Dean

This is a little bit of inside baseball, but it might help some people understand some decisions that might otherwise seem inexplicable.

Since the delta variant has increased significantly, we have received requests from various faculties and employees to work completely remotely. But our fall schedule is more than half person, and students have been signing up for these sections for months.

To make decisions based on a specific basis, we have relied on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). These have the advantage that they actually exist and already have processes and criteria. They are not arbitrary ways of saying yes to some and no to others.

The catch is that none of them were written with contagion in mind.

For example, one of the most common reasons cited in a remote work application is a fear of bringing home an infection with an immunocompromised spouse or child who is too young to be vaccinated. On a human level, that makes sense; If my children were too young to be vaccinated, I would be worried about bringing something home for them. However, as I understand it, the ADA does not apply in either case. The only person entitled to accommodation is the disabled person; If Sarah works in college and her wife Susan is disabled, the college has no obligation to or on behalf of Susan. The same goes for children (and under 12 is not considered a disability anyway).

The FMLA at least takes into account people beyond the employee. But the key word in the title is “abandoned”. It allows time-limited unpaid leave instead of doing work differently. And for most people, an extended unpaid vacation would be a real economic hardship.

We have taken steps to reduce exposure. Full-time lecturers only have to teach two courses in person (with a standard load of 15 credits) and only need to be on campus two days a week. Employees can work remotely up to 40 percent of the week as long as the offices are covered. (That can work through incredible shifts. One person does MWF, another does MTR, the third does TWR …) And we announced an inner mask mandate to reduce vulnerability while people are around.

Still, I have to admit that the ADA and FMLA are awkward in this context. Neither was written with the assumption of a slight infection. If I have a colleague in a wheelchair, I am not at risk, and neither is anyone else in my house. If I have a coworker with a highly contagious respiratory virus, it puts me at risk, and so does everyone else in my house. Policies and legal remedies that make perfect sense in the first case may not fit the second.

As a college, we really cannot spontaneously improvise a whole new policy. For one thing, it’s a collective bargaining environment, so it would be difficult at best to treat employees in a way that isn’t legally or contractually stipulated. If we open the gates, there is no way of knowing how many people would go away. And Delta is a moving target; A month ago almost everyone assumed that autumn would be normal. In a month who knows? When the facts change quickly, it can be difficult for politics to keep up.

I mention all of this for two reasons. One is to shed light on decisions that may appear bizarre from the outside. The other is to get lawmakers to at least investigate how laws like the ADA can be changed in a context of rapid contagion. We do what we can, but at some point it tries to stick a square pin in a round hole. While I hope COVID will fade into our minds soon, I hope we don’t forget its lessons before the next mistake flies around.

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