In the Absence of COVID Safety Plans, Teachers Are Resigning and Retiring Early

This should have been Cheryl Dubberly’s 40th year as a music teacher, but in August 2020, she resigned from her position with the Duval County Board of Education in Jacksonville, Florida.

“It was dreadful to think about continuing,” Dubberly told Truthout. “I would not have been able to stay safe because I was responsible for teaching music to the entire school — 500 to 600 kids.” The job, she says, required her to go from classroom to classroom even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that singing with others can spread COVID-19.

“The job was not worth my life,” she says.

Like Dubberly, Christine Vehar, also a music teacher, left her position in the metro Atlanta area this fall. She had taught for just three and a half years. “When the schools closed in March, I had a great remote teaching experience,” she says. “The students were very engaged and despite some initial disorganization, it worked well, and I ended up loving teaching from home.” But when Vehar’s district decided to move to a hybrid schedule in October — holding in-person classes from 7:15 am to 2:15 pm four days a week, with Wednesdays as a remote teaching and learning day — she resigned.

The reason was fear of catching and spreading the virus.

“My mom is 63, and she lives with me,” Vehar told Truthout. “She is a three-time cancer survivor and an amputee with a compromised immune system, so there was absolutely no way for me to give her the care she deserves and continue to teach in-person.”

A fall 2020 survey conducted by the National Education Association (NEA) confirms that neither Dubberly nor Vehar are unusual. “Teachers with less than 10 years in are leaving the profession,” NEA President Becky Pringle told Truthout. “And 40 percent of mid-range teachers — those with 21 to 30 years of teaching experience, the people who are mentors and leaders in many schools — have indicated that they are likely to resign or retire early. This is really disturbing.”

Michele Fleiss, a technology teacher in a Brooklyn, New York, elementary and middle school, has taught for 23 years and is in this demographic. “I can get my pension once I’ve put in 25 years and reach age 55,” she says. “I have less than two years to go, and while COVID is not the only reason I want to leave the profession, it is a factor.” Her fury toward the City Board of Education is palpable. Staff, she says, are treated disrespectfully — not told whether they’ll be working remotely or in person until the last minute. “A few weeks ago, we got called at 8:30 at night and were told that the next day we’d be teaching remotely. We then had to start making calls and emailing the families about the change. We were also expected to immediately pivot our lesson plans from in-person to online instruction,” Fleiss told Truthout. “It’s frustrating to not know what to prepare for. It also seems unfair not to know what’s happening until the last second. This has happened many times since September.”

Racial Disparities Exacerbate Teacher Frustration

This, Pringle says, is a frequent complaint. But, she continues, the NEA survey revealed another even more horrifying trend: Nearly half of the teachers of color interviewed — including 43 percent of Black teachers — told researchers that the decision to stop teaching has been hastened by COVID. Nonetheless, it’s not the only reason they’re dissatisfied. “When we talk about diversifying the field, we have to take on institutional racism,” Pringle says. “We know that people of color are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Teachers of color are fearful for their own and their family’s health and are less trusting that the government will do anything to protect them.” Pringle also notes that teachers of color tend to work in schools that are under-resourced, less able to provide enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and space to make socially distanced learning possible.

Yet despite pervasive racial inequities, Pringle reports that when surveyed, neither veteran nor new teachers cited combating racial bias — an admittedly huge problem — as the most critical issue facing them. Instead, she says, they reported that their jobs would be far more satisfying if they felt appreciated and valued. When pressed on specifics, she says that school personnel want to be included in decision-making; receive support to develop the skills needed to teach effectively, whether in-person, fully remote or in hybrid classrooms; be provided with adequate PPE to protect themselves and their students; and be able to rely on school-based services to assist students who are dealing with a host of traumas.

“No district had a line item in last year’s budget called coronavirus, but we need to deal with it and work collaboratively to address a number of urgent needs, including the disruption of education provoked by the virus,” Pringle told Truthout. “We know that Black, Brown and Indigenous students, homeless students, low-income kids, and kids with disabilities did not have the same access to technology as their richer peers. We need to address these gaps, and do it in a way that acknowledges that these gaps have existed forever. We then have to reclaim public education as a racially and socially just public good that can prepare every single one of us to succeed in our lives.”

The challenge, according to American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, is that there are 13,000 disparate school districts across the U.S. and no consensus or how best to teach during a pandemic. She blames this on the Trump administration, which, she charges, offered absolutely no guidance to localities. Not only that, but because of austerity measures that began more than a decade ago, many towns and cities faced a shortage of teachers, experienced substitutes, paraprofessionals and other support staff pre-pandemic. These losses, coupled with the layoffs of an additional 688,300 public educators — from pre-K to college level — between the start of the pandemic and September 30, have left school administrators scrambling and overwhelmed. Worse, she continues, all of the information unions have about teachers leaving and retiring earl is anecdotal, since the Department of Education did not deign to collect data on this

Expansion, Not Contraction, Is Needed

“We actually need 20 percent more space and 20 percent more educators — by one estimate, about 900,000 additional staffers — than we had last March in order to organize hybrid learning effectively,” AFT’s Weingarten told Truthout. “Instead, what we have is a patchwork with no real national strategy to ensure that buildings, teachers, school staff and students are safe. Schools are not islands. When virus rates are low to moderate, there is less transmission in the schools, but when community spread is high, it reaches classrooms.”

All of this has created the conditions for the exodus of thousands of dedicated educators, folks frustrated by continued cutbacks, layoffs and ever-tighter budgets; larger classes and an increased workload; fear of catching the virus and infecting others; and a lack of confidence that administrators and lawmakers will come together to develop a strategy for mitigating the pandemic and supporting public health.

Another less talked about issue, Weingarten says, is the development of a plan to provide reasonable accommodations — including the ability to work remotely — for those who need them.

“When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, no one foresaw the need for accommodations that addressed someone’s fear of bringing a virus home to a family member who is immunocompromised,” Weingarten says. “As written, the ADA has stringent requirements for who gets or does not get accommodations. Only people with physical or mental impairments that limit their functioning are considered disabled. But with COVID, people can spread the virus even if they are asymptomatic and may need to work remotely to protect others.” This means that the ADA now needs to be updated to reflect today’s reality, something that the AFT is pressing the Biden administration to tackle, allowing a wider spectrum of people needing accommodations to be covered.

Like Christina Vehar, Krista Wilkinson left her job because she feared exposing her parents to the virus; she was not offered workplace accommodations. Wilkinson had taught in the Chicago area for 11 years, most recently in a 7th-grade language arts classroom. “I help my parents, both of whom had surgery in the last year. My dad also has an autoimmune disease, and I have 17-year-old twins who need help with remote learning because of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder,” Wilkinson told Truthout. Still, it was the working conditions in her school that forced her hand and prompted her resignation. “When school began this fall, I was expected to not only teach in person but to share a room with the reading teacher. There was only a room divider between us. Each period, 25 to 30 students, a total of about 110 kids a day, had to pass through my part of the room to get to his. Even worse, my side had no windows or ventilation. I felt really unsafe and quit.”

Still, once Wilkinson is vaccinated, she says that she will reassess whether to return to teaching or try to find a position as a school administrator. “At this point, I see helping my family as the most important thing, but staying home all day is not that enjoyable. I’m hopeful that the tide will turn so that I can go back to work next fall.”

For their part, Weingarten and Pringle are also hopeful, and are ready to push the Biden-Harris administration to be proactive and follow through on campaign promises.

“Biden has said, and we agree, that the most important issue right now is getting control of the virus. But many other things need to be addressed simultaneously,” Pringle says. “We hope the new administration will partner with us to think deeply about transforming public education so that teachers will not want to leave the field. We also hope that the administration and the new education secretary will show their appreciation for the many educators who, despite exhaustion and disappointments, continue to center their lives around helping kids.”