INDIANAPOLIS (AP): With many teachers opting out of returning to the classroom because of the coronavirus, schools around the U.S. are scrambling to find replacements and in some places lowering certification requirements to help get substitutes in the door.
Several states have seen surges in educators filing for retirement or taking leaves of absence. The departures are straining staff in places that were dealing with shortages of teachers and substitutes even before the pandemic created an education crisis.
Among those leaving is Kay Orzechowicz, an English teacher at northwest Indiana’s Griffith High School, who at 57 had hoped to teach for a few more years. But she felt her school’s leadership was not fully committed to ensuring proper social distancing and worried that not enough safety equipment would be provided for students and teachers.
Add the technology requirements and the pressure to record classes on video, and Orzechowicz said it “just wasn’t what I signed up for when I became a teacher.”
“Overall, there was just this utter disrespect for teachers and their lives,” she said. “We’re expected to be going back with so little.” When school leaders said teachers would be “going back in-person, full throttle, that’s when I said, ‘I’m not doing it. No.’”
Teachers in at least three states have died after bouts with the coronavirus since the start of the new school year. It’s unclear how many teachers in the U.S. have become ill with COVID-19, but Mississippi alone reported 604 cases among teachers and staff.
In cases where teachers are exposed to the virus, they could face pressure to return to the classroom. The Trump administration has declared teachers to be “critical infrastructure workers” in guidance that could give the green light to exempting them from quarantine requirements.
Throughout Indiana, more than 600 teacher retirements have been submitted since July, according to state data. Although the state gets most of its teacher retirements during the summer, surveys suggest more retirements than usual could happen as the calendar year progresses, said Trish Whitcomb, executive director of the Indiana Retired Teachers Association.
“I’ve gotten more (teachers) calling me back saying, ‘Well, I’m going to go ahead and retire,’” Whitcomb said. “Some still wanted to go back in the classroom, but they didn’t think the risk was worth it. They looked at their grandkids and the life they have, and I think they’re saying, ‘I’m just not going to do it.’”