Madison West Spanish students walked out of class Wednesday to demand that their teacher be allowed to return to teaching them via remote video because she has a compromised immune system, days after the teacher was abruptly moved to the district’s all-virtual school, Madison Promise Academy.
An online petition asking that Deana Zorko be returned to her position teaching Spanish at West had over 710 signatures as of Wednesday evening.
Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) spokesman Timothy LeMonds confirmed in an email that Friday was Zorko’s last day teaching at West, and that she is now teaching at Madison Promise Academy.
Students from West said they are now learning from a website called Voces Digital, with a substitute teacher who doesn’t speak Spanish.
Zorko’s attorney, Tamara Packard, said in an email to Madison365 that Zorko has received two organ transplants, and takes medicines that suppress her immune system. As a result, vaccines are not as effective for her as for others. Though she is fully vaccinated, as MMSD requires, she is still susceptible to serious disease if infected by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Packard said she and Zorko have been working with the teachers’ union and district administration since last spring to find accommodations, but this change took place abruptly last week, a month into the school year.
Packard said it’s her understanding that West principal Karen Boran wanted to allow Zorko to continue teaching remotely, but couldn’t overrule District administration. An assistant principal present at Wednesday’s student protests declined to speak on the record.
A “Valuable Teacher”
Until Friday, Zorko taught three sections of Spanish 4 and one of Advanced Placement Spanish Literature at West, all by Zoom from a large monitor in the front of the class, with an assistant teacher physically present to supervise the room.
“Every week she’d ask for feedback on how things were going and she’d make adjustments as needed, but she was very receptive to our comments. And you can tell that she just wanted to make it work the best way that she could for her and her students,” said Miranda Garcia-Dove, an AP Spanish Literature student who organized the walkouts Wednesday.
This week, however, the three Spanish 4 classes are using the Voces Digital online curriculum exclusively, while the literature class has a co-teacher who is not present in the classroom but has posted one assignment to the school’s Google Classroom.
Garcia-Dove said the AP class especially needs a teacher to prepare for AP exams.
“If we aren’t going to have a teacher and if all we’re going to have is an online website that isn’t structured to teach this class, because there’s certain readings and texts that we need to get through, I just don’t think we’re going to be ready for (AP exams),” she said.
Madison Teachers Incorporated, the union that represents MMSD teachers, voiced support for Zorko in a statement.
“It’s important to recognize that Profe Deana Zorko has been working through her Union since last spring on an accommodation to allow her to continue to teach virtually,” MTI president Michael Jones said in the statement. “This whole situation could have been avoided had MMSD made the appropriate accommodations in the summer instead of in the final hour, thus negatively impacting our scholars, both physically at West High School (as they now must re-adjust to another teacher) and virtually (as they are only now able to have a qualified educator like Profe Zorko guide them). In lieu of the district’s obstinance to treat this situation humanely, they put the financial and emotional toll of accommodating Profe Zorko’s needs on West administration and staff to make this work. We appreciate the compassionate collaboration with West’s principal, Karen Boran on this personnel matter. We will continue to support our Union sibling throughout this trying time and hope that the District doesn’t just do the bare minimum when it comes to supporting a medically vulnerable human teaching our community’s scholars.”
In a Facebook post Wednesday, school board member Nicki Vander Meulen expressed support for Zorko.
“Part of being an advocate is speaking up when decisions are made are unfair or unjust,” she wrote. “Therefore I state unequivocally that the decision to not allow Ms Zorko to teach Spanish harmful for our students and staff. I urge the District to reconsider this decision.”
“I think that there’s a lot of support for Ms. Zorko, because she was a very experienced and valuable teacher, and she’s being replaced with something that is just not going to match the level of teaching that she achieved,” Garcia-Dove said. “And I think that everyone is frustrated.”
“Last spring, her principal arranged for her to teach remotely when others returned to the buildings. This summer, we formally sought disability accommodation for Ms. Zorko to work remotely again,” Packard wrote. “West High’s principal initially made the same arrangements, allowing her to teach her students in the classroom via video from her home, while we waited for District Administration to respond to the request. Unfortunately, District Administration would not approve continuing those arrangements, and the principal could not continue them on her own, though it is our understanding that she very much wanted to.”
LeMonds said the current situation is what Zorko asked for.
“Ms. Zorko is a valued MMSD staff member, and we continue our focus on supporting Ms. Zorko and have been working collaboratively to find the best solution for her. Ms. Zorko was not reassigned nor terminated from her position, rather, she applied for a Spanish teaching position in Madison Promise and she was accepted,” LeMonds wrote. “The district has been working with Ms. Zorko, and more directly with her attorney, since her request for accommodations was initially submitted. The first step in our support was requesting an ADA Reasonable Accommodation Form be completed and returned from her physician, of which we never received.”
Packard disputes two of LeMond’s facts: she said Zorko was actually rejected when she applied to the Madison Promise Academy, and that she did submit the proper forms for an ADA accommodation — even though she didn’t have to.
On the first issue, Packard said Zorko received word from the head of the Madison Promise program “telling Ms. Zorko that they only wanted someone who would take the assignment as an overload, and since she didn’t want it as an addition to her regular assignment at West, he didn’t want her.”
But, Packard said, the district changed its mind “at the 14th hour, and on ridiculously short notice with almost no time to prepare.”
On the second issue, Packard said the district did receive their preferred form, but it wasn’t necessary, as the accommodation requests were laid out in “hundreds of emails.”
“They did receive their preferred form, as well as all of the substantive information they needed to address a disability accommodation request well before it was given to them on that form,” Packard said. “The ADA is very clear that an employer must act on a disability accommodation request once it has the information it reasonably needs, and doesn’t get to hide behind a demand to receive that information on a particular form. The ADA itself, and the regulations, do not prescribe any form.”
Asked by email if Zorko could return to West if she had in fact applied to teach at Madison Promise but changed her mind, LeMonds wrote, “That is more complex than it seems,” but did not elaborate.
In any case, the move took students by surprise.
“MMSD really stresses using students and student voices in their decisions,” Garcia-Dove said. “And students were not contacted or informed or worked with to make this decision, and it’s affecting us the most. So we all feel like it’s quite unfair to us and to our education.”
She said she and her fellow students just want their teacher back, even remotely.
Packard said Zorko is considering legal action.