With the start of the school year just weeks away—and many districts’ plans for whether or how to reopen still uncertain—teachers describe a gnawing sense of anxiety, dread, and fear.
In interviews, teachers say the unknowns of the upcoming school year are keeping them up at night. They’re having stress dreams. Some are taking what would have once seemed like extraordinary precautions before the start of a school year—including drafting wills and buying scrubs or other personal protective equipment.
Across the country, districts are still shaping their reopening plans based on state guidance and the coronavirus trends in their area. Ten of the 15 largest school districts in the country have opted to begin the school year remotely, according to Education Week’s tracker. Others are planning to have students return to school buildings for some or all days of the week.
Still, in many places, teachers are preparing to head back into classrooms without any guarantee that they will stay healthy. They have a broad array of concerns, many of which boil down to a few major questions with no clear answers: How will their districts ensure their safety? And if they do get COVID-19 on the job, how will their districts take care of them?
“It was just unanswered question after unanswered question,” said Heidi Hisrich of her Richmond, Ind., school district’s reopening plan. District officials, she added, would ask teachers to trust that they would be kept safe, despite schools resuming in-person instruction: “Well, that’s not enough for me.”
Hisrich, 42, ultimately made the difficult decision to resign from a teaching job she had for 13 years and intended to stay in until she retired. She’s one of nearly 20 percent of teachers who say they are unwilling to go into school buildings this fall, according to the EdWeek Research Center.
Meanwhile, state and national polls have found that many parents—especially those in Black and Hispanic communities, which have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus—are hesitant to send their children back to school during the pandemic. Still, other parents, along with some doctors and politicians, do want children back in schools, leading some teachers to feel pressured into going back.
“There’s a lot of public opinion suddenly that says teachers signed up for this—at no point did we discuss PPE, taking temperatures, and mask guidance in any of my teacher education programs,” said Sarah Mulhern Gross, 37 and a high school English teacher in Neptune Township, N.J.
About 18 percent of teachers are older than 55, putting them at higher risk for severe illness due to COVID-19. Teachers who are immunocompromised, obese, or have Type II diabetes are also at increased risk for severe illness—and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that people with conditions like asthma, pregnancy, or high blood pressure may be at increased risk, too.
Forty-three percent of teachers say they personally have a high-risk condition, and nearly half say they live with someone who is at risk for serious illness due to COVID-19, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey.
To protect themselves and their families, some teachers are planning to retire early, take an unpaid leave of absence, or quit teaching altogether.
For those who decide to stay, some are stocking up on cleaning supplies or PPE for their classrooms, while simultaneously making sure their affairs are in order in case they get sick and die. Teachers are preparing to stop seeing their elderly parents or grandparents for the fall semester or the entire school year, afraid of spreading the virus to them. Others are wracked with worry about how they can protect their own children, some of whom have underlying medical conditions.
Alison Grinter Allen, a lawyer in Dallas, posted on Twitter an offer to draft a will pro bono for any teacher who needed one, expecting one or two to take her up on the offer. Instead, more than 20 teachers reached out for help. Some were worried about who would get custody of their children if they died. One teacher said she wasn’t married and didn’t have kids—but she wanted to make sure her pets would be taken care of.
“I just can’t imagine having this be your vocation and your love and wanting to be there and provide for these kids—but also knowing that having them in the same room could hurt you or your family, or hurt them or their family,” said Allen, who was once a 4th grade teacher in Houston.
Given the demand, Allen has partnered with a community group, which will tap law students and other volunteers to offer simple wills, free of charge, for any teacher or school worker in Dallas County. Other law firms across the country have also offered to prepare wills for teachers at no cost.
More than three-fourths of teachers are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the health implications of resuming in-person instruction in the fall, according to a nationally representative survey conducted by the Edweek Research Center July 22-23. Those concerns have increased over the summer, past surveys show.
And teachers are about three times as likely as other workers to say they are “very concerned” about being exposed to the coronavirus in their workplace, a Gallup survey found. Teachers are also more likely than other workers—64 percent compared to 51—to say the coronavirus outbreak is “getting a lot worse.”
In interviews, frustrated teachers said case numbers in their areas are now higher than they were when school buildings closed in the spring. While a body of research is starting to emerge about how the coronavirus is spread, much is still unclear, especially about children’s role in transmission.
A recent large study out of South Korea found that children aged 10 and older can spread the coronavirus as effectively as adults. Children younger than 10 seem to transmit the virus much less often, but the risk is not zero.
Also, adult-to-adult transmission in schools is a big concern. In Arizona, three teachers who were sharing a classroom while teaching online during summer school contracted the coronavirus, despite following social distancing protocols. One of them—Kimberley Chavez Lopez Byrd, a nearly 40-year veteran teacher—died at age 61. She had underlying health conditions, including diabetes and asthma, according to CNN.
Even so, the American Academy of Pediatrics argues that it’s critical to reopen schools for the health and safety of children, who appear to be less likely to contract COVID-19, and, if they do, are more likely to experience mild symptoms or none at all. Schools provide social-emotional support, socialization opportunities, wellness checks, and meals to vulnerable students. Also, remote learning hasn’t worked well for all students, particularly young learners, those with special needs, or children from low-income families.
Some teachers—especially those in areas with low infection rates—agree. They’re ready to get back in the classroom, and they feel comfortable doing so.
“I feel resolved to get back to school—I just think it’s the right thing to do,” said Bob Sikes, 61 and a high school science teacher in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. While his state has among the highest and fastest growing COVID-19 infection rates in the country, less than 1 percent of cases there are from his county, which has recorded 20 deaths due to the virus. “We need to try. … The kids need school badly.”
Some Teachers Will Leave
Meanwhile, other teachers are deciding their job isn’t worth the risk to their health and that of their families. In Indiana, Hisrich resigned from her beloved job of teaching high school biomedical science because she couldn’t justify the risks. She’s healthy, but her parents are in their 60s, and her father has diabetes and recently underwent a triple bypass surgery.
“I want to be able to hug my dad,” she said. “That was a sacrifice I was unwilling to make.”
Hisrich has since accepted a job teaching the same biomedical science program and curriculum remotely, in an Arkansas school 800 miles away. Still, she’s grieving the loss of her school community and students, and worried about her colleagues who also don’t feel comfortable returning to school.
“It really breaks my heart that I have colleagues who feel trapped between choosing to keep their families safe and choosing to keep an income,” she said. “That’s a heart-wrenching choice.”
In Ohio, Madeleine Todt, 25, had left her teaching job at the end of last school year and was interviewing for another—but she decided to stop her job search when it became clear that schools might reopen even as case numbers continue to grow.
“As things progressed with the country and the state, I just became more and more uncomfortable with how things were looking and became more and more worried about my health and safety,” she said. “What if I were to get it? Of course, I’d have health insurance through my school, but what would be covered? Would [my district] pay for the time off? It became very worrisome to me.”
Instead, she will be a nanny this school year, helping teach children whose parents opted to keep them home from school. This kind of arrangement is gaining traction among many families who can afford it.
Jennifer Gent, the president of the Teachers Association of Washington Local Schools in Toledo, Ohio, said her members are very scared and unsettled about the upcoming school year. The Washington Local district has pushed back its start date and hopes to have students in grades K-2 come to school for in-person learning every day, and students in grades 3-12 split their time between in-person and remote instruction. (The board will decide the final plan in August. The district is turning some interventionists into K-2 classroom teachers so social distancing measures can be in place despite the full schedule for those grades.)
A married pair of teachers in the district both decided to retire early, despite the financial hit they would incur, because their adult children were worried about their safety. One teacher who recently had a baby applied for a leave of absence. The school board rejected her request, and the teacher ended up resigning from her position altogether, unwilling to risk exposing her baby, Gent said.
Washington Local Superintendent Kadee Anstadt said that while she can’t comment on specific personnel cases, nobody has formally cited health concerns in their request for a leave of absence. Some teachers have expressed concerns about returning to school buildings, she said, but many have also said they appreciate the district’s phased reopening plan and the precautions being taken.
“I’m not going to tell you anybody’s doing cartwheels about coming back, but on the other hand, they really hated being remote—so I think we’re all looking for a solution to do this as safely as possible,” she said, adding that there will be numerous safety measures in place, including mask requirements, physical distancing, additional cleaning, and temperature screenings. “As the days go on and we get closer to the start, I think most of them will find some comfort.”
After all, she said, stores and restaurants are open for business and are not checking people’s temperatures before they enter the building. When teachers see how controlled the school environment will be, Anstadt said, they might realize that “this is not much different than going to the grocery store.”
‘A Call to Action’
Onlookers fear that teacher shortages will emerge—or in many places worsen—across the country. Anders Miller, a former high school teacher and third-year law student, is so concerned about the possible effects on students that he’s considering going back into the classroom this school year.
He’s 28 and healthy, so he emailed the dean of student affairs at the Ohio State University’s law school about potentially rearranging his class schedule so he can work in a school building during the day or, as a last resort, taking a leave of absence. He said it’s the least he can do for his former colleagues, many of whom are older and have kids or high-risk relatives.
“I can’t imagine them having to make a decision between their personal health, their teaching health, and their students’ health,” Miller said. “I see [going back to the classroom] as a responsibility for me with my skill set. If there’s a call to action, if there’s a need for me, who am I to say this isn’t a good time for me? It isn’t a good time for anyone.”
Even so, most teachers can’t afford to leave their jobs—especially in the midst of an economic crisis. Instead, many teachers in hard-hit areas are now urging their districts to keep school buildings closed. There have been teacher protests across Arizona and Florida and in cities like Chicago in hopes that district leaders will reconsider their reopening plans.
Notably, the 188,000-student Fairfax County district in Virginia reversed course and is going fully remote after teachers balked at an earlier plan that was a mix of in-person and remote learning. And just this week, the 112,000-student Shelby County district in Memphis, Tenn., announced it would start the school year virtually after several teacher-led protests.
“My big rallying cry in all this is, what good is an education when you’re dead?” said Will Kelley, 38 and a high school social studies teacher who had been protesting against Shelby County’s reopening plan. “What good is [having] a teacher in person when that teacher has one foot in a grave and is on a ventilator?”
A version of this article appeared in the August 19, 2020 edition of Education Week as Worried Teachers Want to Know: What Happens If I Get Sick?