Virus Risks Pushing Some Teachers Away from Teaching

24 July 2020

As pressure grows for teachers to return to their classrooms this fall, concerns about coronavirus risks are pushing many away. Some are finding other jobs while others are mobilizing in an effort to delay the reopening of schools.

Among those choosing early retirement is Liza McArdle. She is a 50-year-old high school language teacher in New Boston, Michigan. She thought about the health risks and other issues, such as trying to teach French and Spanish while wearing a face covering. She also thought about how she might have to teach students online and decided it was time to go.

"We're always expected to give, give, give. You're a teacher. You have to be there for the kids," McArdle said. She said now teachers are being asked to risk their lives because children need to be in school.

Teachers' unions have begun pushing back against what they consider unnecessarily fast reopening plans. The largest unions say reopening should depend on whether school districts have the ability and money to enforce rules that keep students and teachers safe.

FILE - In this Tuesday, July 7, 2020 file photo, Rachel Bardes holds a sign in front of the Orange County Public Schools headquarters as teachers protest with a car parade in Orlando, Fla. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, July 7, 2020 file photo, Rachel Bardes holds a sign in front of the Orange County Public Schools headquarters as teachers protest with a car parade in Orlando, Fla. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP, File)

On Monday, a teachers' union launched a legal case to block the reopening of schools in Florida. State officials said school districts should reopen schools unless local health officials decide it is unsafe.

Teachers in several U.S. cities have called for the school year to start with online classes. Some have joined protests in Arizona. Three teachers in the state, who shared a classroom during summer school, got infected with the virus. One of them reportedly died.

Regina Fuentes is a high school teacher in Columbus, Ohio. She told the Associated Press that "teachers and students shouldn't have to go back to school just to save the economy." Fuentes is entering her twenty-second year of teaching.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said her union is pushing for safety in reopening schools. But she has not ruled out the possibility of strikes.

A recent study from the non-profit group Kaiser Family Foundation examined the health of teachers. It found that nearly 25 percent of the nation's teachers are at a higher risk of serious illness from the coronavirus because of health conditions or age. That is nearly 1.5 million teachers.

A survey by the Michigan Education Association last month asked about 15,000 teachers about their plans. Twenty-three percent said they were considering retiring early or leaving their jobs because of COVID-19. Seven percent said they planned to leave.

Not all teachers are concerned. Karen Toenges said she would love to restart face-to-face lessons with her young students in Orlando, Florida. She disagrees with people who say it is not safe. Even as cases sharply rose in the state, Toenges, who is 60, said she has not been covering her face and is not worried about getting COVID-19.

"It really has become a political issue, which really bothers me," Toenges said. But school reopening plans could get a lot more difficult if large numbers of teachers leave.

Mary Morris has been teaching for 30 years in Toledo, Ohio. She will not return this fall to the Catholic school where she teaches. A temporary change to online learning this spring caused her to cry. But at that time, she still decided to stay another year.

Then she tried to start planning for kindergarten lessons. The new virus safety rules include: Keep children separated. Do not share play things. Continuously clean all objects used to teach counting.

"Everything that I believe in, I can't do," Morris said. "It's all going to be paper and pencil. And that's when I sat down and I thought, ‘What am I doing?'"

Other teachers feel their only choice is to stay.

Retiring now is not financially possible for Deb Waddell, a 61-year-old science teacher who misses her students. But she worries. She and her close family have health conditions that put them at a higher risk than healthy people. She is hoping to get an online teaching position for her rural district in Columbia, Kentucky.

Waddell said she has spent part of her summer working on changes to her classroom lessons. And she got surplus masks. But she is not happy thinking about wearing one all day in a room where the heating and cooling system is, she said, older than her. She also ordered clear eye coverings to help her avoid touching her eyes, which dry out because of a health condition.

David Kitzmann teaches wood and metal work at a high school in Minnetonka, Minnesota. Kitzmann, who is 61, said explaining his own higher risk to students could help push them to keep wearing masks, washing their hands and social distancing.

He said he would hate to see any of the students or teachers die from the virus. "And if we're smart, we don't have to."

I'm Alice Bryant.

Reuters news agency reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

mobilize – v. to come together to take action on an issue

kid – n. a child or young person

union – n. an organization of workers in an industry that is formed to support their interests as a group

district – n. an area established by a government for official purposes

survey – n. an activity in which many people are asked a series of questions to gather information about what most do or think about something

lesson – n. a single class or part of a course of instruction

kindergarten – n. a school for children who are younger than grade school age

mask – n. a covering used to protect your face or cover your mouth