Some Clark County School District employees say problems with a COVID-19 screening tool they’re required to use daily is causing them to unnecessarily miss days of work and wait for hours on the phone trying to return to the classroom.
Approximately 42,000 district employees must answer a series of questions via the emocha Mobile Health app, including whether they’re experiencing certain symptoms associated with COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who tested positive.
Depending on their responses, they receive a color-coded digital badge. If an account is flagged as yellow, it can trigger actions such as an employee being required to stay home and undergo testing.
But three district employees, who spoke with the Review-Journal on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals at work, say they’ve faced struggles getting cleared to return to work — even after testing negative.
Several also said they have had to use “sick days” before returning to the classroom despite a district policy that the Clark County Education Association teachers union said enables teachers who are instructed to stay home to work remotely while a substitute teacher supervises the class in person.
And because of districtwide staffing shortages, including a lack of substitute teachers, some say they’re being pressured to lie on the survey by administrators.
One third-grade teacher said she was harassed by school officials after disclosing a symptom via the survey and was accused of trying to take extra days off.
“I’m getting the idea that (they think) I’m kind of trying to pull something, which I’m not,” she said before she was cleared to return to work. “I want this all over with.”
District beefing up staffing
The Clark County School District said in a statement Sept. 9 that its employee health department is adding staff daily to reduce wait times at an employee call center.
“The department has taken several steps to increase efficiency, including shifting staff to take messages during times with high call volumes,” according to the statement. “In the coming weeks, CCSD is working to extend call center hours to further meet the needs of employees.”
On Sept. 7, the day after Labor Day, the call center answered nearly 500 calls and the average wait time was about 16 minutes, according to the statement. On Sept. 8, the center fielded about 270 calls and the wait time was less than six minutes, it said.
The statement did not address allegations of employees being pressured to lie on the survey or whether teachers in quarantine are being allowed to work remotely from home while in quarantine.
Emocha CEO and co-founder Sebastian Seiguer told the Review-Journal that he is not surprised that some employees may have experienced issues with symptom screening at one time or another.
He defended the technology but acknowledged that it can’t always differentiate between possible COVID-19 symptoms and those of another health condition.
He also noted the app has a chat function that provides responses in less than two hours for 98 percent of the issues that are raised.
The district is responsible for staffing the call center while emocha takes care of providing testing notifications to employees, Seiguer explained, adding that the district is doing a good job in difficult circumstances.
“I think you have to give CCSD some slack here,” he said.
Emocha, which launched in 2014, works with employers, including other school districts, to help them monitor their workforces for COVID-19. ClarkCounty is its biggest school district client.
Told to find employment elsewhere
Drew Pulver, a music specialist at Harris Elementary School in Las Vegas, told the School Board on Sept. 9 that a specialist at his school tested positive for COVID-19.
Emocha determined that he and other specialists needed to be quarantined since they had spent 30 minutes with the individual during an in-person meeting, he said.
But Pulver said parents were not informed that all 600-plus students at the school were exposed to the same individual through rotating 50-minute classes.
Pulver also said that in a meeting with specialists, a school administrator encouraged them to lie on emocha about the exposure. He said he told the truth on the screening questionnaire and was then told by the administrator that he should seek employment elsewhere.
Pulver told the trustees he wanted to request administrative transfer to the Nevada Learning Academy at CCSD, the district’s online school, noting he can’t afford to have his livelihood put at risk for telling the truth.
He also said the incident is just a fraction of the “blatant disregard” for COVID-19 protocols at his school. Pulver told the Review-Journal that school district administrators pulled him aside after he spoke and requested more details during a 45 minute conversation, and another administrator contacted him later.
He expressed gratitude for the concern, but said time will tell how quickly or aggressively things will change.
In the meantime, he said he has returned to the school after missing four days of work and faces a hostile work environment because he raised concerns.
As for his own COVID-19 exposure, he said he was forced to use “sick days” and wasn’t given the option to teach remotely even though he could have done so.
When teachers have to use their own sick time, it disincentivizes them from reporting that they’re not feeling well or have been exposed, Pulver said.
Pressure to not report possible exposures
One of the teachers who spoke with the Review-Journal on condition of anonymity gave a similar account of being pressured to not report possible exposures.
The third-grade teacher, who has taught for 22 years in the district, said her principal walked around a room during a staff meeting without wearing a face mask, prompting some employees to leave because they didn’t feel comfortable. The following week, the principal tested positive for COVID-19, the teacher said.
Employees were directed by supervisors to put in emocha that they hadn’t been exposed to a positive case, she said.
In a separate incident, the teacher said one of the students in her classroom tested positive for COVID-19.
She said she later experienced possible COVID symptoms and didn’t want to take any chances.
When she reported that via emocha, “It, of course, said I couldn’t go back to school until I had been tested.”
She said her principal told her that she would have lied on the daily screening questionnaire.
The teacher took one rapid test and two PCR tests, all of which came back negative, but missed four days of school while she awaited the results.
She, too, used sick days while she was absent and requested a substitute teacher to cover her class. She also said she wasn’t informed of the option to teach remotely.
She said she’s “really disgusted” by how the district is handling the COVID-19 situation and her recent experiences spurred her to consider immediately retirement.
But after returning to her classroom and seeing her students, she said she plans to stick it out until the end of the school year.
Another teacher, an early childhood special education teacher who has been teaching in the district for about five years, said he missed a full week of work after he disclosed that he had a stomach ache.
“By 8:30, I felt perfectly fine,” the teacher said about the day he reported the stomach ache. “At that point, I knew it was not related to COVID and it was just the health problems I have.”
Disconnected after long wait
That same day, a Friday, he underwent COVID-19 testing. For the PCR test, he was told he could expect results back on Wednesday, if he was lucky, and that it could potentially take even longer than that.
On the following Monday, he said he called the school district’s employee health line and spent about three hours waiting before being hung up on.
“Nobody should have to be put on hold for multiple hours at a time,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”
The teacher said he received results back that Tuesday night, a day earlier than he expected, and emailed them to a school district nurse but received no response.
His principal told him to return to school that Wednesday.
The teacher said he called and emailed over the next couple of days trying to get the situation resolved. But it wasn’t until Friday, a full week after his stomach ache, that someone from the health office emailed him and cleared him to return to work.
The teacher also said he wasn’t informed about the option of teaching remotely, though that would have been almost impossible given his job. He also used sick days.
Now, the teacher said he feels it’s best for employees to lie on the screening questionnaire unless they are almost sure they have COVID-19.
Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.