Summer planning for some teachers this year included a new, somber task: Penning their last wishes in case they contract COVID-19 when they return to their classrooms in the fall.
In interviews with Yahoo Money, some teachers and union representatives shared their frustrations at being at the mercy of their school boards since the coronavirus pandemic’s arrival in March, awaiting clarity about how they would return to teaching in the fall — hopefully safely.
Amid growing cases and death tolls — and President Donald Trump’s push for schools to reopen fully — they’re worried that returning to a classroom is more like an occupational hazard.
“All of us ended up talking to people who were spending their summers writing their wills,” said Alison, a teacher in Colorado and her school’s teachers’ union rep. She asked to go by an alias out of fear of retribution. “They were like: ‘We probably are going to go back in person and that feels unsafe, so I'm spending my summer writing a will.’”
‘This is where I draw the line’
In recent years, the country’s 3.7 million teachers have been given additional responsibilities that mirror the sometimes dangerous climate in which we live.
“We do active shooter drills, we do fire drills and tornado drills, and all of that to keep our students safe, and this is just something that we haven't seen before,” said Elyse, a teacher who requested to go by an alias for fear of reprisal. “Ask any educator, they would do anything for their students, but this isn't something that we would think is at the top of the list. I don't want to die by going back to school.”
About 40% of American adults have at least one underlying condition that puts them at greater risk for severe complications from COVID-19, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 1 in 5 public school teachers are 55 or older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a cohort that is also more vulnerable to the illness.
“For a lot of teachers, taking a stand for their safety has kind of been sort of the straw that broke the camel's back,” Alison said, “and I think the idea that our lives are potentially going to be put on the line was the point at which people were saying: ‘This is where I draw the line.’”
‘They're naturally afraid; they're rightfully afraid’
For educators working in districts that plan to conduct in-person instruction for the upcoming school year, there aren’t many options.
“Teachers want to be in class with their students, there's no place they'd rather be than in physical classrooms with their students,” Frank Valdez, a spokesperson for the Colorado Education Association, told Yahoo Money. “They're naturally afraid; they're rightfully afraid.”
For the teachers who have extenuating circumstances, such as belonging to a vulnerable population, sharing a multi-generational home, or living with someone who is immunocompromised, accommodations are available — but not guaranteed.
Alison explained that if someone wasn’t able to secure a coveted position teaching online, her district was offering a complicated cocktail of furlough pay and then using the teacher’s vacation and sick days to bridge them until unpaid leave inevitably begins.
Teachers’ unions in Colorado, Connecticut, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York City, and Massachusetts are all sparring with their school boards over safe and proper working conditions. They often are asking to allow educators to be more involved in the planning process, so teachers can feel secure returning to the classroom.
“There are countless justifiable reasons that students should return to the classroom in the fall,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, the president of the Colorado Education Association and a high school counselor, said in a press statement. “But those reasons alone don’t dismiss educators’ valid fears and concerns and the risk of being exposed to the virus, especially as we see cases spiking in parts across the country.”