In late March, Jennifer Mazzotta-Perretti, a public school administrator on Long Island, New York, was in a hospital with a 103-degree fever discussing end-of-life plans with her domestic partner.
“I couldn’t breathe. I was really in and out of consciousness,” she said. “I was sweating profusely. And just really feeling out of my body.”
Mazzotta-Perretti, who donated a kidney to one of her students in 2009, so was particularly at risk from COVID-19, said she had contracted the coronavirus two weeks earlier at work. She still suffers from recurrent fevers, fatigue, migraines and other lingering symptoms, according to letters from her doctor that she provided to NBC News.
She renewed her contract over the summer with the Massapequa School District, where she had worked for three years and was overseeing 1,200 special education students. On Aug. 7, after she gave her supervisor a letter from her doctor saying she needed to work remotely until at least Sept. 7, she was told she was being recommended for termination.
Her supervisor said it was because she forwarded work emails in 2018 and 2019 to a personal email account she shares with her partner. She said she did so to be able to work on cases at nights and on weekends and was unaware it was not allowed. She believes that she was retaliated against for requesting to work remotely.
“I received stellar reviews and a new contract and only after requesting accommodations did they search for a reason to terminate me for emails from two years ago,” Mazzotta-Perretti said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “The only thing that changed was I got sick and I needed help.”
The school district declined to comment but denied any wrongdoing.
"As this is a matter of personnel, the district has no comment," Superintendent of Schools Lucille Iconis said in a statement Tuesday. "However, the district unequivocally denies any and all allegations of discrimination, misconduct, and/or wrongdoing made against any district personnel."
Mazzotta-Perretti's lawyer, Isaac Nesser, said he's hopeful that the Massapequa Board of Education "will do the right thing and realize it is crazy to fire her." If not, she plans to sue to get her job back.
‘A student-centered administrator’
Mazzotta-Perretti was an executive assistant for pupil personnel services. She was lauded by her supervisor as “an ethical, compassionate, empathetic and student-centered administrator” in her 2019-20 review.
“She is passionate and enthusiastic about helping students and supporting families,” it said. The review noted that she's been in the education field for 23-plus years, 18 of which “she has served as a special education administrator.”
Her supervisor did not immediately respond to phone and email requests for comment Friday.
Her role requires that she be available on nights and weekends, and she said that she had difficulty accessing work emails from home on the Chromebook the district gave her. So she would sometimes forward work emails to her personal Gmail account.
After a March 10 work meeting, Mazzotta-Perretti said she began to feel sick.
"I started reaching out on March 16 to my direct supervisor to let him know that I had fever and difficulty breathing — symptoms that we were hearing at that time about COVID-19," she said.
The same day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order directing all schools statewide to close for at least two weeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The governor announced May 1 that schools throughout New York would remain closed through the end of the school year. He said it was impossible to reopen schools "in a way that would keep our children and students and educators safe."
Mazzotta-Perretti donated a kidney after a writing assignment about doing good deeds without expecting anything in return led to a discussion about a student's need for a transplant. She has one child, an 18-year-old son who has high-functioning autism.
She said the worst of her symptoms lasted through the end of April.
"My kidney doctors were concerned that if it went into the one kidney I have, it could be deadly because I do need a kidney to live," she said. "It also lowers my immune system in terms of being susceptible."
"And that’s why they think COVID-19 hit me so hard," she said.
'Special allowances should be made'
In July, after she received her review and a new contract for the 2020-21 school year, Mazzotta-Perretti said the school district reopened for administrators.
"When I had to go back to work, I failed their employee health screening because it asked if you've had symptoms for any of the things associated with COVID-19," she said. She stated she was still exhibiting symptoms and was sent home, which she says upset her supervisor.
"He told me, 'You're the only one who answered yes to any of these questions'" and that it would require he speak with human resources, she said.
Afterward, her doctor wrote another letter saying "special allowances should be made to accommodate her" working from home "as needed throughout the 2020-2021 school year" when she experiences symptoms.
Approximately three weeks later, she said she received an email informing her she needed to appear in a video conference call that could result in disciplinary action. In that meeting, she learned she was placed on administrative leave and faces termination.
"We’re in the middle of a pandemic and to put me out with no health insurance, for myself and my son and my ability to have a paycheck, it’s heartless," Mazzotta-Perretti said.