About 18% to 20% of teachers fall into the vulnerable age category for COVID-19. Will those at-risk teachers don masks and return to their classrooms or retire?

Teachers fearful of COVID-19 yearn to retire, but will they? 

As schools announce their intentions to reopen in many places, questions remain about how that will look. Another unknown: About 18% to 20% of teachers fall into the vulnerable age category for COVID-19.

Will those at-risk teachers don masks and return to their classrooms or retire?

“We aren’t going to know that answer with any clarity until a few days before people are expected to show up for pre-planning,” said Mike McGonigle, legal services director for the Georgia Association of Educators. Because teachers have signed contracts for the 2020-21 school year, McGonigle said they’d have to seek releases. Those able to offer physician documentation of medical risks would be on the best footing.

“If teachers are not retirement age and in those high-risk medical groups, that will be a harder case to argue,” said McGonigle, “because being fearful of the virus doesn’t seem to be sufficient reason in some people’s estimation.”

“Teachers likely have signed their contracts by now as school systems are required by law to offer written contracts for the following school year by May 15 of the current school year. However, a superintendent does have the authority to release a teacher from a contract that has already been signed,” said Georgia Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Frick.

A survey by EdWeek Research Center found 66% of teachers, principals and district leaders are somewhat or very concerned about the health implications of resuming in-person instruction in the fall.

Thirty-six percent report a physical condition that makes them more vulnerable to the virus, while 69% have a close family member with such a condition.

More than one out 10 teachers -- 12% -- say the COVID crisis may lead them to leave the profession even though they were not planning to do so before the pandemic.

In AJC Get Schooled Facebook discussions over the last two months, teachers have said they’d like to retire rather than return to classrooms where they face infection risks. One such teacher just gave me an update on her plans to retire: Her financial planner told her to work two more years. 

In addition, some teachers say their spouses are out of work or expecting layoffs, and that will delay their retirement dreams. A teacher friend with asthma said she fears there aren’t many jobs waiting for her in this battered economy if she were to quit. 

Nationwide, districts will face state budget cuts that could range from 10% to 30%. “There are schools worried about whether they can keep their lights on, never mind teachers,” said Stephen Pruitt, former Georgia Department of Education official, the ex-Kentucky commissioner of education and now president of the Southern Regional Education Board.

Despite those looming budget woes, districts are advancing opening plans. 

“We will have school on Aug. 3 in Clayton County,” said Clayton Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley at a United Way of Greater Atlanta town hall last week. “We are looking at face-to-face, a virtual academy and we’re looking at a blended model where we possibly, depending on social distancing, alternate a group on A day and a group on B day.”

On Monday, Buford City Schools announced it was planning to begin in-person classes on Aug. 5, although specific plans have not been completed. “We know that the best place for our students is in their schools,” said Superintendent Robert Downs. “We know that our families and students are ready to come back as soon as our doors can safely open again, and we look forward to welcoming them back on Aug. 5.”

“We are seeing the same thing across the metro area. School will start in August,” said Ken Zeff, a former Fulton County School System leader now heading Learn4Life, a coalition of businesses, nonprofits, communities and eight metro school systems working to raise student achievement.

“People are holding their breath that maybe we can get in-person. But once you are in your classroom, there will be signage, there will be a lot of sanitation, a lot of washing your hands, recess will be staggered, things will be different. But school will be happening in August,” said Zeff.

Earlier today, the governor of North Carolina released guidelines on how schools can reopen. “Getting children back to school to learn is a high priority, but they must be able to do so in the safest way possible,” said Gov. Roy Cooper. “Every child, family and public school educator in North Carolina deserves strong protection to lower the risk of virus spread.” 

The guidelines ask schools to plan at this time for three scenarios; Plan A: Minimal Social Distancing, Plan B: Moderate Social Distancing, or Plan C: Remote Learning Only. North Carolina plans to announce by July 1 about which plan will be followed. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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