Older Teachers At Risk Of COVID Dread Return To Class

As office buildings and schools reopen, some adults 65 and older are forced to return to a work environment that carries a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Gary Phelan, who practices employment law in Westport as part of Mitchell & Sheahan, P.C., said he’s seeing older teachers having to make tough choices: lose their jobs or return to a potentially risky classroom environment.

“Older workers based on the fact of their age don’t necessarily have legal protection,” said Phelan.

Age doesn’t provide protections under federal law in the same way that disabilities might, he said. While age can make some people more vulnerable to serious complications from the virus, age alone isn’t a reason to stay home from work during the pandemic.

“If a school is completely reopening, they are going to have to be in the workplace,” said Phelan. “It’s going to involve risk. How that can be accommodated is a challenge because often what is happening with schools is it’s all or nothing.”

Phelan said if an older teacher has no underlying condition, a school district legally doesn’t have to accommodate that person. He said for some, it might be crucial to share more about their health with their employers.

“Sometimes individuals are reluctant to share what might be a hidden disability, whether it’s diabetes or heart disease,” said Phelan. “But they [are] at a much greater risk, so it’s important to request an accommodation.”

Overall, Phelan said he sees most employers working to accommodate their employees. He also said it’s important to ask whether employers can’t accommodate older workers or whether they won’t.