STAMFORD — High school math teacher Sharon O’Brien’s human rights case against the Stamford Board of Education is rooted in the fear and uncertainty that descended on the nation when it shut down three years ago this month.
A new and deadly coronavirus was spreading like wildfire. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic.
Hospitals everywhere were quickly overwhelmed. Countries closed their borders. People went into quarantine. Businesses closed. College students were sent home. Sporting events were canceled. People wore masks, socially distanced themselves, and waited for researchers to come up with a vaccine.
Schools were forced to switch instantly from in-person to remote learning. Things were difficult for teachers such as O’Brien, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 during that transition in March 2020.
“I was sick for five weeks,” said O’Brien, who teaches at Westhill High School.
The pneumonia-like virus was particularly threatening for O’Brien, who has three underlying medical conditions, called co-morbidities, that intensify the risk of becoming significantly ill from COVID-19.
She focused on her students in pre-calculus honors classes, algebra II honors and algebra II classes, O’Brien said.
“I dragged myself from the bed to the dining room table to teach,” she said.
Learning was completely virtual for the remaining three months of that school year. For the start of 2020-21, students were allowed to choose between in-person and remote learning, and teachers were allowed to apply for remote instruction.
According to O’Brien’s complaint filed with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, she was one of more than 200 teachers who asked to work remotely.
The CHRO complaint says O’Brien submitted medical documentation and, in September 2020, district administrators temporarily approved her request, though at first she had to go to a school and provide virtual instruction from an empty classroom. In October 2020, she was approved to teach from home until January 2021.
But the number of COVID cases kept increasing, so school administrators decided that all teachers would resume in-person instruction on April 12, 2021.
O’Brien asked to continue teaching remotely through May and June of that year.
“The COVID rate was still high, and I didn’t have a classroom to go to. So I would have to float from room to room, using other people’s computers and spending a lot of time in hallways full of kids,” O’Brien said.
Her CHRO complaint states that, “After April 12, the school had COVID-positive cases each week, resulting in quarantines.”
It states that school administrators approved three requests from teachers who wanted to continue teaching remotely until the school year ended. One had a high-risk pregnancy and two were undergoing cancer treatments, according to the complaint. Another teacher, like O’Brien, had not yet received a second vaccine dosage and was allowed to continue teaching remotely until she got the shot, according to the complaint.
O’Brien was not allowed to wait until she was vaccinated, and was not approved to teach remotely for the remainder of the school year. According to the complaint, school administrators offered no explanation for how they distinguished between “degrees of severity in medical conditions and … vulnerability to COVID-19.” Administrators also did not explain why a medical recommendation from O’Brien’s doctor that she maintain distance from others was disregarded, the complaint states.
“They just told me to go on unpaid leave, or go back in person,” O’Brien said.
Her students were allowed to return to school in person but none did, according to the complaint. They continued learning remotely even though O’Brien was ordered to return in person.
O’Brien said she consulted the teachers’ union and learned she could use some of the unused sick days she’d accumulated during 17 years of teaching.
She then “took paid leave until the end of the school year. As a result, (her class) was abruptly discontinued, and her students did not receive further instruction in this subject area of advanced mathematics” because the school district could not find a substitute, the complaint states.
“I was dumb-founded. There were teacher shortages and we couldn’t find substitutes. A hundred and fifty kids went without math,” O’Brien said. “I could have taught them from home. It was just wrong.”
In May 2021, she filed a complaint against the Stamford Board of Education with the human rights commission. She asked to be reimbursed the 46 sick days she used when she was not allowed to continue remote teaching, and a $6,300 stipend she was to be paid during that time for taking on another class because of the teacher shortage.
For nearly two years O’Brien, a mother of two with a doctorate in education, a master’s degree in business administration, and a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management, has been representing herself before the commission.
She questioned a school administrator and called her principal to testify, O’Brien said. In January 2022 a human rights investigator decided “there is reasonable cause for believing that a discriminatory practice had been or is being committed as alleged” in the complaint. Last month O’Brien had a hearing, and now Judge Jon FitzGerald, a human rights referee for the CHRO, will hear the case in October, O’Brien said.
“I’m tired of people going against the law,” she said. “I don’t want this happening to anybody else.”
According to the Jan. 19, 2022 report, a CHRO investigator found “reasonable cause” that “based on the testimony and the evidence in the record,” the Stamford Board of Education discriminated against O’Brien based on her disability.
School administrators “downgraded” O’Brien’s medical condition and substituted their medical judgment for that of her physician, the investigator concluded.
The investigator further concluded that teachers who did not have a disability and were less susceptible to COVID-19 were able to teach in person, but O’Brien’s disability limited her from doing that, so the school district’s policy requiring all teachers to teach in person “disadvantaged and discriminated against those with disabilities.”
The school district’s policy to discontinue remote teaching as of April 12 “lacked a credible explanation,” the investigator reported. O’Brien’s testimony on that was corroborated by her principal, leaving the investigator to conclude that “the decision was arbitrary and political” and cast “significant doubt” that O’Brien “needed to teach from the building.”
Kathleen Steinberg of the schools’ Public Affairs Office said Thursday in an email that the district “does not comment on matters awaiting a hearing.”
O’Brien, a Stamford native, said she came to teaching after her career in the corporate world ended in layoffs following a 2001 recession.
“I got a job teaching at a college, but I wanted to do it at an earlier level to reach kids,” she said.
She entered the state’s Alternate Route to Certification program for adults who want to teach. The program seeks to prepare graduates for jobs in critical teacher shortage areas, such as math.
In 2006 she began teaching at Westhill, where her children followed her as students.
She’s now back in the classroom, masked and fully vaccinated, O’Brien said.
“I don’t leave my classroom. I eat in my classroom,” she said. “I tell the kids I keep a mask on because I’m at high risk.”
The pandemic called for fairness and compassion, O’Brien said, and she’ll see her complaint through to the end.
“Math teaches you to look at both sides of an equation,” she said. “It helps you see the truth.”