School Reopening Plans Fuel Fears Of Teacher ‘Brain Drain’ — And Trump’s Threats Aren’t Helping
School Reopening Plans Fuel Fears of Teacher ‘Brain Drain’ — and Trump’s Threats Aren’t Helping
The surging rates of the coronavirus have completely disrupted the political landscape of Texas, a state known for its strong Republican presence. Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican himself, initially prohibited local governments from mandating the use of face masks in April. However, this month he reversed his stance and issued a statewide mask mandate.
The impact of the virus is not limited to politics; it is also greatly affecting the education system in Texas. When the Texas American Federation of Teachers recently organized an informational webinar on topics such as family and medical leave, disability claims, and retirement, over 4,000 people registered to attend.
Rob D’Amico, the communications director for the teachers’ union, expressed concern about the situation. He stated that while they do not want teachers and school workers to retire, the reality is that many of them might not feel comfortable returning to work in schools. This is particularly true for older teachers who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. D’Amico described the current staffing situation in schools as a "nightmare" due to the widespread infections in the state.
Similar to teachers in other states, the majority of the union’s members in Texas are hesitant to go back to school until they feel it is safe. As a result, even if schools across the country open on time and offer in-person instruction, there is a high chance that many teachers and principals in Texas will not return. This means that families may have to adjust to unfamiliar faces in the education system.
One middle school math teacher from North Texas, who preferred to remain anonymous due to fears of retaliation, shared her thoughts on the situation. Despite her love for teaching and her 30 years of experience in education, she admitted to being scared amid the current circumstances.
In her district, teachers are scheduled to report to work on August 6, with students returning on August 17. However, Governor Abbott indicated on Tuesday that he might extend the time period during which schools can continue with online-only instruction, leaving the final decision to local authorities. Nevertheless, the anonymous teacher has little faith that district leaders have adequately considered all possible scenarios. She raised concerns about what would happen if a student becomes ill. Would the entire school need to close for sanitation purposes?
Additionally, if a teacher calls in sick with COVID-19, is there a substitute available to fill their position? The teacher expressed doubts, especially in middle schools where securing substitute teachers is already a challenge. She wondered who would be willing to take over her role for two weeks after she contracts the disease.
Furthermore, if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in her classroom, she doubted whether anyone would even enter the room to address the situation.
While she would love to continue teaching for several more years, the teacher admitted that the current circumstances make it a bit frightening.
The concerns expressed by teachers in Texas are also echoed in Florida, where the number of new cases is reaching record highs. Mark Noel, an experienced reading teacher in Orlando who also coaches tennis, is grappling with difficult decisions for the upcoming fall semester. Two of his seven tennis players have tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks, raising concerns about the safety of athletes returning to the classroom.
Wendy Doromal, the president of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association in Florida, expressed the panic and fear among teachers in the state. Some teachers have even chosen to resign, while others scramble for information on retirement, sabbaticals, and policies related to the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Florida’s education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, has issued an emergency order compelling schools to open for at least five days per week. However, Doromal and the union have requested a delay in the start date until the end of August. They argue that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a 14-day consecutive decline in COVID-19 cases before resuming large gatherings, and a surge in cases does not meet that requirement.
In total, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has discovered that approximately 646,000 teachers in public and private schools are over the age of 55.
According to the AEI, twenty states have at least 20 percent of teachers who are 55 or older. This includes some of the largest states and those with the highest rates of infection, such as California, Florida, Texas, and Arizona. In these states alone, a combined total of 154,637 teachers who are 55 or older were identified.
The executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, Daniel A. Domenech, believes that many administrators and teachers who are eligible to retire will choose to do so. The risk of being in an environment that is still a danger, even under the best circumstances, is one that they are not willing to take.
The issue has gained more significance recently due to the pressure from Trump administration officials, including the president himself, to reopen schools for in-person instruction. President Trump stated that it is time to reopen schools and threatened to withdraw federal funding from schools that do not open before the upcoming presidential election on November 3rd.
During a conference call with governors, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos expressed her expectation that schools will be fully operational this fall, regardless of the pandemic’s severity. DeVos emphasized the importance of having children physically present in classrooms and believed that localized outbreaks can be managed on a case-by-case basis.
Domenech believes that educators are unlikely to feel confident about the demands of Trump and DeVos. Many teachers and staff members are likely to refuse to work in an environment that puts them at risk. Domenech also mentioned that Trump’s ultimatum holds no weight, as Congress is the entity that controls most of the federal education funding.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, expressed concern that Trump’s actions may lead to a brain drain in the education system, as talented individuals might choose retirement or take a break due to the risks involved.
Educators have already faced challenges due to the coronavirus. Schools were forced to shut down last spring, nationwide, once the virus began to spread. As a result, the virus has already caused significant disruption among workers, with over 350 educators being memorialized for their loss due to COVID-19 on Education Week’s memorial page.
Recent incidents, such as a school district meeting in California resulting in 45 principals and administrators needing to quarantine after an attendee tested positive, a summer camp in Missouri closing down due to over 80 cases, and the death of a first-grade teacher in Arizona, have only heightened concerns about the risks involved in reopening schools.
The American public remains divided on the issue. A poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal/NBC News showed differing opinions among voters on whether children should return to school or daycare in August. Among parents, 48 percent felt comfortable with the idea, with political affiliation playing a role in the division.
Overall, teachers and principals do not appear optimistic about returning to full-time, face-to-face instruction in the coming weeks. The situation remains complex and uncertain as the debate over reopening schools continues.
In general, the survey discovered that 44 percent of respondents reported having colleagues who are considering leaving classroom teaching. This may be why several large school districts, such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta, and Nashville, have decided to start the school year with online instruction.
The level of confidence among educators regarding their schools’ preparedness for the upcoming term is varied. Teachers appear supportive of returning to school buildings if strict guidelines for cleaning, mask-wearing, and social distancing are implemented. In fact, a survey conducted by the American Federation of Teachers in June revealed that 94 percent of members endorsed standards that included daily deep cleaning and sanitizing of school facilities. Additionally, 92 percent endorsed the use of protective personal equipment (PPE) and training for staff and students.
In Chicago, the city’s teachers union stated that about 40 percent of its members believe in-person instruction should not resume until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available, even if that takes a year.
AFT President Weingarten mentioned that many teachers, particularly older ones, are hesitant to put their health at risk, especially if they have elderly parents to care for. The question of how teachers in their 50s or 60s can safely return to school while considering these factors remains.
Roberto Rodríguez, President and CEO of Teach Plus, a nonprofit organization focusing on policy and leadership issues in the education sector, recognizes that most teachers prefer face-to-face interactions and are eager to be back in the classroom. However, they are concerned about the uncertainty that awaits them in that environment.
He explained that teachers are trained to build trust and establish social and interpersonal connections with their students, as these are the foundations of the learning process. When teachers don’t have the opportunity to establish these connections, it can impact their decision to continue in the profession.
The leader of the Superintendents Association, Domenech, said that schools feel pressure to reopen, regardless of the guidelines in place. He added that the real threat comes from the president’s base, specifically the parents who follow and support him. These parents often attend rallies without wearing masks and are more likely to send their children to school due to their belief that the pandemic is a hoax and that it is safe to do so.
He emphasized that these families often don’t consider the consequences if a teacher were to contract COVID-19 in the school. If this were to happen, it would lead to a disruptive shutdown while the building is sanitized. Domenech questioned how many times this would occur during the year and who would replace the infected teacher. These logistical challenges are often overlooked by those who aren’t directly responsible for handling them.
Noel, a tennis coach from Florida, expressed his love for his students but also highlighted the need to consider his family’s safety. His daughter works as a doctor, and his son-in-law is a physician’s assistant in a prison. They already risk their lives on a daily basis, and he pleaded not to put another family member at risk by sending teachers into precarious and unpredictable classrooms.