Teachers weigh risks as virus resurgence looms
Christy Karwatt teaches social studies, but she’s been thinking more like a math teacher the last few days.
At 61, the Sarasota High teacher is entering her 27th year in Florida's retirement system, and she loves her job. She had planned on teaching three more years to maximize her retirement payment.
But as COVID-19 cases continue to spike across the state and the country, officials are pouring on pressure to reopen schools full time this fall.
On Monday, Florida's education commissioner ordered the state's schools to open full-time in August. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday criticized plans to offer in-person instruction only a few days a week. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reworking its guidance on reopening schools after President Donald Trump thought the guidelines were too tough.
In the meantime, Karwatt has begun crunching the numbers on just how much money she would sacrifice if she retired early.
“I’m at an age where I am scared for my life,” she said. “What good is money if you are sick or dead?”
But other questions nag at Karwatt.
What if she opts to retire early, but then schools are closed and she would have been teaching from the safety of her own home? What if she returns, only to catch COVID-19 and has to retire early anyway, or worse?
As directives shift, teachers like Karwatt are desperately trying to figure out what the next school year will look like and if it is worth returning to potentially dangerous classrooms, or if they should walk away from a job that many view as a calling.
In a USA TODAY/Ipsos poll in May, 1 in 5 U.S. teachers said they were unlikely to go back to school if their classrooms reopened in the fall.
It's a question that many still don’t know how to answer.
“I will probably wait until the last minute to make a decision,” Karwatt said. “I think that is how everybody is.”
A case that hit close to home
Susan Nations, principal of Wilkinson Elementary School in Sarasota, has used her public Facebook page to document her experience battling COVID-19 and eventually spending a week in the hospital before being released this week.
“I cannot walk six inches to the chair without a major coughing fit,” she wrote on July 1.
The next day, she wrote about wanting to help her fellow patients as they struggled for breath.
“Of course I hear my own cough, my own gasp as my lungs cry out for a deep draw of air,” she wrote. “But the truth is also I can hear my neighbor through this wall doing the same thing repeatedly throughout the day and night. And you want to run and help, but you can’t.”
On Monday, Nations posted that she had returned home after a week in the hospital.
As teachers learned about state leaders pushing to reopen, Nations’ close-to-home experience seemed to be a harbinger of the dangers that reopening poses.
Nations told her staff in an email sent July 1 that she believed she had contracted the virus during a meeting on campus where staff were not wearing masks but were socially distanced.
A principal had caught the virus during the relatively quiet summer months of the school-year calendar. Facebook commenters wondered: Would district staff stay safe once schools are fully in session?
“Am I going to look at my students," said Sarasota High teacher Mary DeArment, 59, "as if they are potentially going to kill me,” or even kill her 92-year-old mother? “I hate that,” she said.
Only a third of U.S. principals, in fact, feel confident in their school's chance to "preserve the health of staff and students" when schools reopen in the fall, according to a poll released Wednesday by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
“A principal’s primary and foundational duty is to keep students safe in school. Without that assurance, little real learning can take place,” NASSP CEO JoAnn Bartoletti said in the news release.
In the USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, nearly 9 in 10 teachers said they foresee difficulties in enforcing social distancing among their students.
Administrators have talked about students' pitching in to help stem the spread. But as they describe students helpfully wiping down desks or obediently wearing masks, many teachers wonder what students they are referring to.
“A high school is kind of like a cruise ship, an incubator," DeArment said. "It is their developmental imperative to interact with one another. They feel invincible.”
Options for teachers? It's unclear
Sarasota County School District officials still do not know how many teachers will opt not to return this year. Chief Academic Officer Laura Kingsley said last week that is a work in progress.
She said the district wants to keep its most vulnerable teachers safe, but remote teaching assignments will be determined largely by the certifications a teacher holds and which students want remote instruction.
“I definitely want to consider the health issues a teacher is facing,” Kingsley said. “But we will not be able to accommodate them if their school does not have a demand for remote instruction.”
While the risks are apparent, many teachers say they are looking at the fiscal realities as closely as they are considering the health risks. After meeting with her financial planner last Tuesday, DeArment had her answer.
“I cannot afford either retirement or leave of absence,” she said in a text message. “I will be returning to school in August. May invest in a hazmat suit.”
Contributing: Susan Page, Maureen Groppe and Erin Richards, USA TODAY