Teacher fired who refused to return to work after COVID leave

·4 min read

Jun. 2—ELLINGTON — After six hearings and more than 20 hours of testimony, the Board of Education on Tuesday voted to uphold the superintendent's firing of Windermere School kindergarten teacher Maura Klesczewski, who'd been on leave this school year to avoid exposure to COVID-19 but failed to return to teaching when her paid sick days ran out in March.

The board voted 6 to 4 to terminate Klesczewski after deliberating for about two hours following closing arguments. The hearing was held in the cafeteria at Ellington High School.

Klesczewski, 51, of Suffield, suffers from severe asthma and sought extended leave from her teaching duties under the Family and Medical Leave Act last September as recommended by her doctor because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the severity of her illness.

Superintendent Scott Nicol approved that leave, but began trying to terminate Klesczewski in April after she failed to return to work in March when her paid sick time ran out.

Klesczewski's lawyer, Andrew Houlding, said after the board announced its decision that he was very disappointed with the outcome.

Houlding said the decision can be appealed to superior court, but at that point he wasn't sure if Klesczewski was interested in doing that.

Just prior to entering deliberations, the board heard final arguments from Houlding and lawyer Frederick Dorsey, who represented the school administration.

Houlding argued that the school administration didn't give Klesczewski the accommodations she deserved, and that she shouldn't be fired for this incident, which is the first time she's been disciplined in her career.

"Maura has an unblemished record — 20 years of teaching. Never disciplined, never cautioned, never engaged in any misconduct," Houlding said.

TEACHER TERMINATION

WHO: Maura Klesczewski, a kindergarten teacher at Windermere School in Ellington who suffers from severe asthma.

THE ISSUE: Klesczewski refused to return to work in March after being on extended leave since September due to fear of contracting COVID-19, which prompted the school superintendent to seek to fire her, but she sought a hearing before the Board of Education.

THE DECISION: After six hearings on the issue, the school board on Tuesday voted 6-4 to fire Klesczewski.

"The drastic action of termination of her employment is not warranted and should be rejected," he argued

Houlding told the board that Klesczewski took the COVID-19 pandemic very seriously because she knew it could kill her. When it was time to return to school for the 2020-21 school year last September, Klesczewski received assurances that she would be safe. However, within the first days of school, she didn't feel that way, so she filed for leave, Houlding said.

"Can you imagine the fallout if she had died from the virus after reporting to work here last fall? Think about it," he told the board.

In the spring of 2021, Klesczewski's paid sick days ran out and she requested to remain on unpaid leave through the end of the school year. Nicol denied that request, which he had the right to do, but he failed to engage in any meaningful dialogue with Klesczewski about her medical condition or her safety at work, Houlding said.

"The denial letter is a flat-out my way or the highway," Houlding said.

"In the context of this pandemic and its upheaval of all your lives, and all our lives, I suggest to you that it would be unreasonable and illogical to terminate this teacher after 20 years of unblemished employment over three weeks of unpaid leave of absence," Houlding told the board.

On the other hand, Dorsey argued that his client, the school administration, had given Klesczewski more opportunities than were owed to her. She didn't take advantage of them, but spurned them, he said.

"This teacher was treated with so much compassion, it's hard to believe — $55,000 worth of compassion," said Dorsey, referring to the money Klesczewski was paid while on leave.

During professional development days before the start of the 2020 school year, Klesczewski was given opportunities that she didn't take to learn how to use certain technology because students would be learning remotely, according to Dorsey. She then had issues with that technology in the first days of school, he said.

The technology problems were the basis for Klesczewski's leave, not her health, Dorsey argued.

"She suddenly decided she was going to take FMLA leave because she didn't want the job she had. That was it," Dorsey argued.

When Klesczewski was given an opportunity to return to work in March, she ignored it, he said.

"When you walk away from these kinds of things, you shouldn't expect to be able to walk back in anytime you want to," Dorsey argued.

He said there were a lot of people who "went the extra yard for Ms. Klesczewski," but she didn't do the same.

"I don't think we should have a place for somebody like that in a professional system, and that the board should vote to terminate this person," Dorsey said.

For breaking news and happenings in North Central Connecticut, follow Matthew Knox on Twitter: @MatthewPKnoxJI, and Facebook: Matthew P. Knox JI.

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