School & District Management

Teachers at Higher Risk of COVID-19 Wonder: Should I Even Go Back?

By Madeline Will — May 07, 2020 6 min read
Cossondra George, a middle school math teacher in Newberry, Mich., has asthma and will turn 59 next school year. She worries that returning to school could compromise her health.
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When school buildings reopen, many teachers might not be there.

About 18 percent of all teachers are aged 55 or older. That age group accounts for about 92 percent of deaths in the United States due to COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although adults who are 65 and older are most at risk. Teachers with underlying medical conditions, such as asthma or diabetes, are also at high risk for severe illness caused by the coronavirus.

Teachers are in close quarters with dozens of students throughout the school day, and new studies have suggested that children can transmit the coronavirus. As the national conversation on safely reopening schools accelerates, experts have said that the best way to protect vulnerable teachers might be to not have them in school buildings at all.

“Most teachers care about the kids and their learning—this is a huge priority for us, but we’re also individuals and have our own health concerns,” said Dawn, a math teacher with asthma who requested that her last name and name of her school not be used. “We didn’t sign up to be nurses on the front lines.”

President Donald Trump has weighed in on the issue twice in recent days, saying at a virtual town hall that while he thinks students will be fine when schools reopen, the “bigger problem” will be teachers who are older or have underlying medical issues.

“I do worry about teachers at a certain age,” Trump said. “Students are going to be fine. … But if you have a teacher that’s 65 or 70 years old and has diabetes, that one, I think, they’re going to have to sit it out for a little while unless we come up with the vaccine sooner.”

In addition to age, the CDC lists asthma, chronic lung disease, diabetes, serious heart conditions, chronic kidney disease, severe obesity, immunocompromised conditions, and liver disease as among the risk factors for COVID-19.

Think tanks and teachers’ unions alike have floated proposed solutions to keep vulnerable teachers safe, such as offering them early retirement, reassigning them to virtual jobs, or letting them teach remotely while their students are in the school building supervised by another staff member. But as states and school districts begin to conceptualize what reopening schools in the fall will look like, high-risk teachers are left anxious about their health and what it means for their jobs.

“With all the uncertainty about what school might look like in the fall, the idea that I and 800,000 other older teachers might not be there had not registered for me,” said Larry Ferlazzo, a 60-year-old teacher in Sacramento and an opinion blogger for edweek.org. “It’s not a good feeling to think that I might not be in the classroom in the fall. It’s certainly not what I signed up for.”

But at the same time, he said, he wants to stay healthy. Ferlazzo said he’s waiting to hear what his district leaders are planning in terms of safety measures for students and staff—and he hopes teachers will be consulted.

‘Lots of Sleepless Nights’

Cossondra George, a middle school math teacher in Newberry, Mich., has asthma and will turn 59 in August. The thought of returning to school in the fall has led to “lots of sleepless nights.”

“I’m really concerned about my health, I’m concerned about my students’ health,” she said. “I just feel like opening schools back up has to be a really well-thought-out process.”

But so far, when it comes to maintaining social distance in the classroom, “there are so many more questions than there are answers in my mind,” George said.

She’s worried about how to keep six feet of distance between everyone in a crowded classroom, and how to make sure her 7th graders comply with the safety measures. At the same time, continuing to teach remotely isn’t an appealing option, either: She has been frustrated with distance learning, and said she doesn’t feel like it’s the same quality of instruction that she can provide face-to-face.

Even so, “I’m not ready to retire, I’m just not,” George said. “I love what I do. ... I don’t want somebody else to make that decision, and I don’t want my health to make that decision.”

Offering early retirement to at-risk teachers or staff has been proposed by the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington. According to an AEI report, this could also be a cost-saving measure for districts, which are expected to face steep budget cuts that could lead to teacher layoffs.

“You want it to be one option among multiple options,” said Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at AEI and one of the authors of the report. “I don’t really want to see us pushing educators out of the profession. That’s not preferred.”

Ideally, he said, districts could reassign at-risk teachers to jobs that could be done from home, such as one-on-one remote tutoring or mentoring. This might mean changing teachers’ job descriptions, which could require negotiations between the teachers’ union and the school district, said Hess, who also writes an opinion blog on edweek.org.

Still, early retirement would be “better than layoffs,” Hess said. And the priority, he said, should be on reopening schools quickly.

“It’s hard to argue that kids and families should have their schools remain closed when 75 to 80 percent of adults are not at risk,” he said.

‘I’m Trying to Weigh My Options’

Already, Nampa Christian School, a small private school in Idaho, has reopened its building to finish out the school year in person. Teachers who are at higher risk for illness are continuing to teach from home, while students in their classrooms learn via Chromebooks under the supervision of a substitute teacher.

When more schools reopen, it will likely be in a hybrid model, with some remote learning still happening, said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Schools might adopt a staggered scheduling approach, in which groups of students take turns coming to school to make it easier to maintain social distance, and vulnerable teachers could deliver remote instruction to the students at home.

At-risk teachers also could remotely teach the students who are staying home because they have high-risk medical conditions, or who have been exposed to the coronavirus and are in quarantine. Weingarten said early retirements could also be an option, as long as teachers’ pensions are protected.

“In a situation where people carry the virus asymptomatically, ... we’re going to have to have all these different options for kids, as well as teachers,” Weingarten said. “Let’s not put people who may be immunocompromised in a scary or threatening position.”

School districts have to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and underlying health issues could qualify right now, she said.

However, the ADA does not require employers to provide accommodations for employees who live with someone in a high-risk group, and teachers who fall in this category would not be legally protected from refusing to work. Those teachers might be able to take paid or unpaid leave, AFT has said, depending on their collective bargaining agreement, state executive orders, and their employer.

This has left many teachers worried about not just themselves, but their loved ones.

Julie, an elementary school computer science teacher who requested that her last name and the name of her school not be used, said her husband is 57 and has an upper respiratory disease. If he contracted COVID-19, he might not survive, she said.

The thought of returning to her job in an elementary computer lab keeps her awake at night. She sees more than 400 children a week, and “they touch everything.”

“I’m trying to weigh my options,” she said. “Is the risk worth my husband’s health and well-being? … I don’t know how I could do this job remotely. It’s really a personal decision I’m going to have to make.”

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