Teachers at High Risk for COVID-19 Face a Terrible Choice: Your Job or Your Health

Jul 15, 2020

Crystal is a Pennsylvania teacher contemplating a life-defining decision. Her husband has dermatomyositis, a disorder that weakens his muscles and his immune system. Crystal herself has asthma, and so does her 5-year-old son, who may start kindergarten in the fall. On occasion, he has coughed until he’s vomited, unable to catch his breath. For her, getting COVID-19—or worse, bringing it home—is a huge concern.

“As a mom, I’m like, ‘Am I failing my child? Am I failing my husband by putting their health in jeopardy’” and going back to work, says Crystal, a middle school math teacher who asked to be identified only by her first name to discuss sensitive family health matters. “But if I don’t go to work, I don’t get paid, and we can’t live off of just my husband’s paycheck. And I have a master’s degree. I have tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt to be an educator. What do you do?”

Even short-term disability is no quick fix; it pays only part of her salary and medications can run $400 a month at her house, with insurance. She’s waiting for more guidance from her district before making a final decision on returning to work, though her administration has already said CDC school guidelines on social distancing are untenable at full capacity.

Crystal’s exact situation may be uncommon, but her dilemma is hardly unique. It’s one that many of the nation’s teachers are facing as they weigh concern for their families’ health if they return to school against fears they could lose their jobs and health insurance if they don’t.

“I’ve thought about it and I’m not exactly sure what I would do,” says Tangie Crates, a middle school teacher in Sacramento, Calif., who may have to return to the classroom but is hoping to teach remotely next semester now that her teacher’s union is pressing for online learning. Like Crystal’s husband, Crates has an autoimmune condition that could make it difficult for her to fight off a coronavirus infection. “My doctor actually called me to say that I shouldn’t go back.” Still, she just bought a house, and going on disability would mean taking a pay cut, making it a tough decision if in-person classes resume.

Adding to her worries: a recent spike in cases in her city and a pause on local reopening plans. In Sacramento, as in many parts of the country, COVID-19 infections are continuing to rise, sometimes hitting record highs in terms of deaths and total daily cases.

At the same time, the American Academy of Pediatrics has said schools should prioritize in-person learning where possible. (Though, it later added, health agencies should make local decisions based on available evidence). Following the original AAP statement, districts, states and federal officials, including President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, have issued a steady drumbeat of statements urging teachers and students to return to in-person learning as soon as possible.

Yet a majority of teachers aren’t sold, due to poor guidance from state and district administrators and few realistic ways to achieve social distancing on school buses and in crowded classrooms that were overspilling with students even before schools closed in March. On social media and in interviews, they cite health concerns and age—about 30 percent of teachers are over age 50—as well as the disastrous school reopenings in Israel that reportedly contributed to a surge of new cases.

Last month, an Education Week poll revealed nearly two-thirds of educators were in favor of keeping schools shut to prevent unnecessary virus transmission. Since then, teachers have taken to Twitter using hashtags like #14DaysNoNewCases and #RefusetoReturn to express their unease. And more than 47,000 educators have signed a Change.org petition by Oakland teacher Harley Litzelman pledging not to return to school until virus transmission rates are under control.

“Rather than sacrifice ourselves and the public health of our communities, it’s time we sacrifice something else: the comforts of professional civility that keep us from physically challenging the authorities that refuse to handle this pandemic correctly,” wrote Litzelman in a popular post on Medium. His fiance, who is also a teacher, has asthma and won’t risk returning to school. In an interview, he shares that he is in touch with labor leaders across the country looking to organize teachers against returning. Personally, he is not planning to return to the classroom until his county reports no new cases of COVID-19 for two weeks.

“I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t have somebody they could lose tragically, unnecessarily because we don’t want to do online learning,” says one public school teacher in Manatee County, Fla., who asked to be referred to by only his first name, Michael, to protect his job security. His wife recently had a baby and they frequently see her elderly grandparents, both of whom have health issues.

Florida’s governor recently ordered students and teachers to return to school campuses in August and, despite some misgivings, Michael will be among them. “They’re evicting people for not paying their bills during COVID,” he says. “I don’t want to be one one of those people.”

Michael, like many of his peers, ran into his share of problems while teaching remotely this spring. Even so, he believes online learning presents a more sensible path forward, given the shaky school plans for social distancing, where maintaining six feet of space will be difficult in places like school buses, which his principal has admitted will be virtually impossible owing to a limited fleet of vehicles. “They would never have enough buses or enough time to get all the kids to school that [way],” he says of social distancing.

Monise Seward, a sixth grade special education teacher in DeKalb County, Ga., near Atlanta, feels similarly. She needs to support her family, but she’s not looking forward to going back. And working in Georgia, where it is illegal for teachers to strike, means not returning is almost out of the question. “I miss being in the classroom, but I'm also a parent,” she says. “I know that it's not safe for us to go back to school right now because for most people here, they’re working in schools that are literally at full capacity. If you have 26 or 28 kids in a classroom, there’s no possible way you can have six feet in between each student.”

Seward is worried about vague social distancing plans, but she also has concerns about virus transmission from asymptomatic carriers and the complexities of contact tracing and how that might interrupt learning. “If you’ve quarantined a student, you’ve got to quarantine every student that came into contact with them,” she says. “Their siblings have to be quarantined, the kids who go to school with their siblings. The teachers have to be quarantined. Nobody’s going to be in a school building.”

Of course it’s not just teachers and students that will have to return, adds Christine Esposito, a third and fourth grade teacher of gifted students in Charlottesville, Va., who recently penned a sharp missive about the dangers of returning to school too soon, including the need for cleaning supplies and extra teachers, which has attracted more than 55,000 shares on Facebook. “I’m really more concerned about our instructional assistants, our bus drivers, our school nurses, our cafeteria staff who are, by and large, more likely to be Black or people of color, who are paid much less than we are,” Esposito tells EdSurge. “And are more likely to be in positions where they’re going to have trouble social distancing.”

Esposito will return to school in the fall, though not without reservations. “There’s not one thing I don’t love about my job,” she says. “But unless there is real federal money in order to fix some of the things I mentioned in that Facebook post, I’m probably not going to be super thrilled” about returning.

She points to organizations like Major League Baseball, whose return to work plan is not without problems, but which calls for players and coaches to be tested every other day. “There is no plan whatsoever at the federal, local or state level to test teachers in any regular fashion,” she says. “A lot of teachers and administrators died in New York City this spring. So I think any teacher would be foolish not to be worried.”

Right now, Crystal, the Pennsylvania teacher with an asthmatic son, is at least hoping for a hybrid model, where students come only a few days a week and six feet of space between students can be more effectively managed with fewer kids in the building. “Our class sizes could be under 15, which is very doable,” she says. It would be an improvement, she admits, but the spectre of COVID-19 weighs heavily on her mind. “It just scares me. If I go and bring it home to my family, I don't know that I can live with that.”


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