Wallingford teacher alleges discrimination at work based on health condition

WALLINGFORD — A tenured teacher at Lyman Hall High School alleges that school officials discriminated against him due to his physical disability by not letting him teach remotely.

Jason Sorensen, an English teacher who taught at Sheehan High School for seven years until making a crosstown transfer to Lyman Hall this year, filed a complaint with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities in October 2020.

Sorensen and Attorney Peter Goselin are preparing to file the complaint in federal district court after the mandatory mediation step with CHRO failed to resolve the complaint.

He’s currently teaching in person. The school year began Aug. 30 with all students and staff returning to school.

In his CHRO complaint, Sorensen said he was denied an accommodation to teach remotely in the 2020-21 school year, which he requested due to his weakened immune system.

School Superintendent Danielle Bellizzi, who was Wallingford’s assistant superintendent for personnel before stepping into the top position July 1, declined to comment on Sorensen’s complaint specifically, but shared a general statement regarding the layered mitigation strategies that are currently in place district-wide.

“Wallingford Public Schools takes all requests for workplace accommodations from staff members very seriously and each situation is handled on a case by case basis,” she said.

Sorensen, 46, was diagnosed in July 2019 with acute myeloid leukemia — a form of blood cancer.

He received a bone marrow transplant in late October 2019 that left him immunocompromised with a high risk of infection.

He was placed on a long term leave of absence, under the terms of his union contract and the Family and Medical Leave Act, for the rest of the 2019-20 school year.

In March 2020, COVID-19 struck and Gov. Ned Lamont issued an executive order closing all public schools. For the remainder of the school year, all instruction in Wallingford was conducted remotely.

In May 2020, Sorensen said that he began to prepare to return to work from his leave of absence and resume teaching full time.

According to his CHRO complaint, school officials claimed that Sorensen had no right to his former position and that if he chose to return, it would be either as a part time teacher or a full time assignment in coding — a completely different subject area.

“They considered me to be retired and (that) I resigned from my position,” Sorensen said last week. “I feel like they didn’t want me to return. They put up some roadblocks.”

Sorensen’s leave of absence was approved through the Connecticut Teachers’ Retirement Board. It included one month of paid leave, but he received disability benefits from the board.

According to a letter from Bellizzi dated May 22, 2020 — when she was still the head of personnel — school districts are not required to hold a position for a teacher who is receiving Teachers’ Retirement Board disability benefits and may consider such a teacher to be retired.

The letter further stated that the district was willing to permit his return to work in Wallingford for the 2020-21 school year “as a courtesy.”

“The typical process seemed to be a little bit strained, in terms of negotiating what would happen,” Sorensen said. “It took over a month to get to a point where they even said that I had a position.”

According to a letter from an unnamed nurse practitioner in the adult stem cell transplant program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Sorensen remained at “high risk for infection due to immune suppression” in August 2020.

He submitted the letter with his request to teach remotely for the 2020-21 school year, but he continued to find resistance from school officials, the complaint stated.

For the current school year, Sorensen returned to the classroom. Another letter from Dana-Farber stated that he suffered a complication from the bone marrow transplant, Graft-versus-Host disease, which necessitates ongoing immune suppression medication.

The letter, dated Aug. 23, states that because Sorensen is at high risk for infection, “it is medically advisable for him to continue off-site remote teaching ... If remote teaching is not possible, then strict adherence to proper ventilation, mask-wearing, and physical distancing would be required.”

A second letter from Dana-Farber, dated Aug. 27, recommended that “his classroom (have) an operational HEPA filter, as well as an air conditioning unit in his room to further filter the air and improve his ability to wear an N95 mask for the duration of the day.”

Bellizzi said the school district complies with the requirements and guidelines set forth by local, state and federal health officials for all staff and students.

These measures include “the requirement for all staff and students to wear a mask while indoors, adherence to social distancing protocols, compliance with ventilation and water system protocols, disinfecting and cleaning protocols, hand sanitizer throughout the school, promotion of frequent hand washing, personal protective equipment (PPE) upon request for staff such as gloves, face shields, masks, and gowns, student desk and teacher desk shield if requested, sick isolation room in every building for students who are feeling sick during the day, frequent reminders to all staff and students to stay home if they are feeling sick, contact tracing and adherence to quarantining protocols.”

Bellizzi also said that if an employee requests additional accommodations specific to their unique health circumstances, “an interactive process is engaged to determine eligibility for accommodations and, if appropriate, to develop a plan of reasonable accommodations for the employee.”

Sorensen said that even though it’s been “a tough experience,” the community and the staff of Lyman Hall “have been great as I’ve reintegrated.”

“It’s been great to have that overwhelming support from those people who are close and working with me on a daily basis,” he said, “and knowing that there’s support from the community. It’s been nice to have that for sure.”

LTakores@record-journal.com203-317-2212Twitter: @LCTakores

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