Teachers weigh risks of returning to class

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: teaching challenges.

Parents aren’t the only ones struggling with the changes COVID-19 has brought to education. Whether their schools are welcoming students in person or offering classes online only, teachers face a very different workplace than the one they abruptly left in March.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And some of them don’t plan to return. As schools across the country prepare for the new school year, many are bracing for a potential wave of retirements and resignations. That could leave some schools short-handed.

WORLD correspondent Laura Edghill has our story.

LAURA EDGHILL, REPORTER: Fifty-eight year-old Catherine Good never dreamed she would retire in the midst of a global pandemic.

GOOD: When the whole COVID thing came up, then it was like, OK, is this really how I want to end? Is this, you know, the way I want to go out?

Good taught special education in Warren, Michigan. And she had summer 2020 in her sights long before the coronavirus emerged.

During a 2015 short-term mission trip to Senegal, Good had an encounter that compelled her to embark on a five-year retirement plan. Then COVID-19 ended her last year much sooner than she expected. That caused her to reconsider leaving.

GOOD: But then in prayer I just felt like, OK, it’s not like God, when He told me five years ago, now He’s like “Oh, I forgot about this pandemic thing! Oh no, wait a minute – you should wait an extra year!”

While Good already had plans to retire this summer, many other teachers didn’t. Now they’re grappling with whether to retire, resign, or take an unpaid leave of absence rather than face a workplace riddled with uncertainty and health risks.

Like Good, many don’t want to close the curtain on decades of faithful service during such an unsettled time.

Veteran Spanish teacher Beth Leitch retired abruptly this summer from Garrett High School just north of Fort Wayne, Indiana. She and her husband Kevin are both in their 60s, and Kevin is a heart-attack survivor. Concerns about bringing the virus home outweighed Leitch’s desire to continue in a profession she loved.

LEITCH: It was tough. I had dreams, nightmares, and lost a lot of sleep.

And it’s not just those in higher risk age groups exiting the profession. Some younger teachers fear burdening their children with a parent compromised long-term by the virus.

Forty-two-year-old Heidi Hisrich is one of them. She recently made the tough decision to resign her position as an award-winning science teacher at eastern Indiana’s Richmond High School.

HISRICH: I feel at peace with it most of the time. I am not regretting the decision, but I am grieving very deeply. And it comes in waves.

No one knows how many more teachers will leave during the coming weeks as schools wrestle down to the last minute with their fall plans. But signs point to a looming wave of departures. 

Michigan’s teachers union surveyed more than 15,000 of its members in May. more than 30 percent said they were seriously considering retiring early or leaving the profession. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average annual rate of teacher attrition across the country is just 8 percent.

The expected exodus could leave many schools with staffing gaps. 

Eric Williams is superintendent of Virginia’s Loudoun County Public Schools, just outside Washington, D.C. He told school board members in late July that staffing concerns were a major consideration in the district’s decision not to return to in-person learning.

WILLIAMS: Based on the latest information we have, we believe that the school year should start with 100 percent distance learning, with very limited or no exceptions and proceed with implementing the planned hybrid model in stages.

Loudoun is one of three major districts around Washington to recently scrap plans for in-person classes. That includes Virginia’s massive Fairfax County Public Schools which reported about 10 percent of its teaching force requested health exemptions under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Back in Michigan, Catherine Good prayed about whether now was the right time to retire. She ultimately decided it was, but not for the reason she had five years ago.

GOOD: All along in my head, my plan has been when I retire, I want to go back into the mission field. My parents are 88, 89 years old and I help them out with lots of things because I live 10 minutes away. So I feel kind of like my plan was mission field, but I think for right now God’s plan is caring for my parents.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Laura Edghill.

(AP Photo/Eric Gay) Wearing a mask to protect against the spread of COVID-19, a kindergarten teacher prepares her classroom at Southside Independent School District, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in San Antonio. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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