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Immune compromised city teachers face uncertainty as pandemic rages on

Ari Decherd teaches music remotely from his home. Photo by Larra Morris

As a recipient of three kidney transplants in his lifetime, music teacher Ari Decherd has always had to be cautious with his health. But now, his condition threatens his job. 

“When I get sick with anything I get sicker than anybody else would,” Decherd said. “I want to be there for my students, I want to be there for me, for my family, for my colleagues. But it is not safe.” 

Even though Decherd received his Covid-19 vaccine, his body did not produce the antibodies needed to fight off the virus, leaving him, essentially, unvaccinated. 

In July and August, Decherd applied for a medical exemption to be able to teach remotely for the 2021-2022 school year. Because of his severely depleted immune system, Covid-19 has the potential to kill him. Still, New York denied his application — twice.

“It didn’t really seem like they even read [my applications],” he said.

The United Federation of Teachers filed an arbitration to defend educators, like Decherd, who had their religious or medical exemption rejected by the city, but finalized plans are still being negotiated. 

“The reason for the denial is illegal, period,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers in a news conference Friday. “And the way they did it, by not engaging an individual, it was also illegal.” 

The city and the UFT hope to come to an agreement by Sept. 27 — a date that already has a pre-existing deadline for educators to get their first vaccination dose. 

But on Sept. 10, arbitrator Martin Scheinman released his decision. Scheinman ruled that teachers would be granted permission to temporarily teach remotely, if the exemption was approved. Educators who needed an accommodation were asked to reapply.

The decision also stated that the remote teaching option could change to a different assignment entirely, noting that educators could potentially be moved to doing work for the Department of Education. 

“I obviously didn’t get into teaching to do something else other than teach,” Decherd said. “But there’s other issues. It’s not safe for me to be on public transportation. It’s not safe for me to be in a building with people who are not my family.” 

On the evening of Sept. 12, two days after the arbitration decision, Decherd received an email from the Office of Disability Accommodations stating that his medical exemption had been approved, after applying for the third time. 

“We are reaching out to you because you have been medically approved for a COVID-19 vaccination mandate-related exemption or accommodation,” the notification email read. “This means that you will be given an assignment to work outside of a school building (e.g., administrative offices) to perform academic or administrative work determined by the DOE.”  

The email said the DOE would notify Decherd when, where and what his new assignment would be, but until then, he has the ability to teach from home. 

“Essentially we won our argument, that also places negotiations in this particular place,” Decherd said. “At least hopefully, on my part, it allows room to say ‘there are other problems with this [reassignment].’” 

Decherd hopes that he can remain teaching remotely, as going into an office, even with less people, is still dangerous. He said he could even teach students who were medically vulnerable like himself. 

“But, I’m not holding my breath quite honestly that that would be the case,” Decherd said. “My hope is that we can truly negotiate and say ‘Yeah, that’s not a very good idea for me.’ and I can just continue to teach remotely from my home.”

The city was also prepared to take employees off of payroll if they were unable to go to school for any reason — vaccinated or unvaccinated, Mulgrew said. 

“It’s all garbage and disgraceful,” he said. “When the city put on the table that they would recognize someone’s legal right to an exemption or accommodation, but still wanted them removed from payroll, we then knew that we had to challenge the order because that is illegal.” 

Decherd is upset not only about his own situation, but also for what the city is putting his coworkers and family through. 

“I’m obviously upset on my behalf, but I’m also upset on all those other people’s behalf as well,” he said. “It seems very, very unreasonable and I’m really mad about it.” 

 The Department of Education could not be reached for comment.