SC teacher with muscular dystrophy says returning to classroom without vaccine could be deadly

SC teacher with muscular dystrophy says returning to classroom without vaccine could be deadly
Jessica Lopez, Richland Two teacher (Source: Emily Wakeman)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Governor Henry McMaster and Superintendent Molly Spearman called for teachers to return to the classroom with or without the vaccine last week.

But one Richland Two teacher with muscular dystrophy says that teachers with pre-existing health conditions are facing the impossible choice between their health and their livelihood as they wait for the vaccine.

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“The vaccine is the difference between being able to continue to work, and not,” Richland Two School District Pre-Kindergarten teacher Jessica Lopez said.

Lopez has muscular dystrophy, and she said that because of her condition her doctor told her she can’t return to the classroom without the vaccine due to her risk of dying from COVID-19. However, Lopez claims Richland Two denied her request for accommodations to teach virtually in November.

“It became a matter of literally potentially life and death,” Lopez said. “My doctors have told me that should I contract COVID I have a very high risk of fatality, and so that steered my entire path of living and working.”

Jessica Lopez said due to her muscular dystrophy, her doctors told her that COVID-19 could cause her heart, lung, and diaphragm muscles to atrophy, which would put her at high risk of fatality.

“I applied for accommodations and sought every avenue to attain those and was denied so I have not been able to teach since November 4th and that’s been really hard for me,” Lopez said. “I feel like I’ve lost a part of myself in not being able to do what I love so much.”

Lopez said she requested to teach virtually, but because this was denied she’s now on unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act. With legal counsel, Lopez has filed a charge to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission citing failure to provide reasonable accommodation.

“We’re just trying to get Mrs. Lopez back to work,” Jack Cohoon, an employment attorney that is representing Lopez said. “That’s what she wants more than anything in the world. It could still be done tomorrow if the district wanted to be reasonable in its accommodations to her.”

Richland Two spokesperson Libby Roof said in a statement, “While it is not Richland School District Two’s normal practice to comment on pending or threatened litigation, Richland Two strongly denies that it has violated any state or federal law in the consideration of any employee’s request for a job accommodation during the pandemic. Since July, Richland Two has established a consistent procedure for reviewing the hundreds of applications it has received for health-related job accommodations for all three phases of its return to school plans. Employees who did not receive their desired accommodation were presented with other potential alternative accommodations and provided several levels of review, culminating with a committee led by the Superintendent and a contracted physician.”

“They offered accommodations of additional PPE,” Lopez said. “But according to my doctor that is not an accommodation because that’s already provided for you.”

Lopez said her doctor told her she can’t return to the classroom without the vaccine. Lopez said that she has a long-term substitute filling in for her class right now, but with one-third of her students opting for virtual, she feels like she could have taught a class of virtual-only students.

“I know personally several teachers who are in my situation,” Lopez said. “As soon as we get the vaccine we are able to go back to work, so you can get a big chunk of us back to work in the classrooms if we can just get the vaccine.”

Lopez said it’s also been disappointing to hear McMaster’s remarks on teachers wanting to be next in line.

“As a teacher to be told that my desire for a vaccine was immoral was a slap in the face,” Lopez said. “It once again showed me that teachers don’t matter to our governor.”

Teachers are currently in Phase 1B for receiving the vaccine, but could be moved up to phase 1A if two resolutions being debated at the State House this week pass.

A Richland Two spokesperson also said in the statement, “Employees who have not been able to return to work under any circumstances have been provided leave to protect their jobs and hopefully will be receiving vaccinations that will allow them to return in the near future. While we may not be able to grant all the accommodations requested, we remain committed to having the proper precautions in place at our schools and facilities to help keep our employees and students safe.”

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