Catherine Good, 58, never dreamed she’d retire from teaching during a global pandemic.
“When the whole COVID thing came up, then it was like, OK, is this really how I want to end?” she said. “Is this the way I want to go out?”
Good, a special education teacher from Warren, Mich., had summer 2020 in her sights for retirement long before the emergence of the coronavirus. But countless other teachers nationwide are 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 dislike the idea of closing the curtain on decades of faithful service during such an unsettled time.
“Everything that I believe in, I can’t do,” said kindergarten teacher Mary Morris of Toledo, Ohio. The veteran Catholic school educator at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School said she reached her breaking point after realizing the struggle of keeping a roomful of 5-year-old children socially distant or stopping them from sharing toys and classroom supplies. “It’s all going to be paper and pencil,” she said. “And that’s when I sat down and I thought, ‘What am I doing?’”
Christina Curfman of Hamilton, Va., is 55 and suffers from an autoimmune disease. She has two adult children. She told WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., she decided to leave the classroom rather than risk the consequences of catching the coronavirus: “I want to be here for my kids the rest of the time I can.”
Others, like Liza McArdle, of Ann Arbor, Mich., feel the COVID-19 requirements make it impossible to do their jobs. The 50-year-old educator couldn’t reconcile teaching French and Spanish with a mask blocking her face.
No one knows how many more teachers will leave over the coming weeks as schools wrestle with their fall plans. But signs point to a looming wave of resignations. The Michigan Education Association, the state’s teachers union, surveyed more than 15,000 Michigan educators in May. It found 32 percent said they were seriously considering retiring early or leaving the profession, and 8 percent said they already had left.
The average annual rate of teacher attrition across the country is 8 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That means, at least in Michigan, the number of teachers not coming back already hit the average with a little more than a month to go until the new school year begins after Labor Day.
The exodus could leave many schools with staffing gaps. An anticipated teacher shortage led three major districts around Washington, D.C., to scrap plans for in-person classes and go fully virtual. Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools reported about 10 percent of its teaching force requested health exemptions under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the rate of applications for leaves of absence doubled. The neighboring Loudoun County Public Schools, where Curfman taught, received an unprecedented number of leave requests and resignations this summer, leading it to also decide not to offer in-person instruction.
But despite the upheaval, many teachers are choosing to stay put.
“I kind of don’t come from a family that retires,” 64-year-old Philadelphia High School for Girls math teacher Vicki Baker told Time. “I feel like we have one time to get this right because there’s so many things at risk.”
After praying about whether it was the right time, Good went ahead with her early retirement. She plans to care for her aging parents and serve in the mission field. Good briefly worked as a missionary in the 1990s in Europe and has participated in numerous projects with her church over the years.
“All along, my plan has been when I retire, I want to go back to the mission field,” she said. “Now I have time.”
Face-off in New York schools
The New York State Legislature passed a law on July 22 barring the use of facial recognition technology in schools for the next two years while the state’s education department studies the issue. Upstate New York’s Lockport City School District sparked a heated debate after implementing a pricey biometric scanning system in all of its buildings earlier this year.
The district maintains the cutting-edge technology could help avert a potential tragedy like a school shooting. Concerned parents say they don’t know enough about the software’s capacity to track student and staff movements and monitor daily habits like when they come and go, whom they greet, and what they wear. They also worry bad actors could exploit the system’s massive storehouse of data for illicit purposes.
State lawmakers discussed the issue back in January but did not pass a final bill until recently. Separately, the New York Civil Liberties Union sued the state in June on behalf of two Lockport parents who said the technology violated student data protection laws.
But the legislation and the lawsuit might not matter much in a COVID-19 world. Anyone who has tried to unlock an iPhone using the “Face ID” feature while wearing a mask knows a simple swatch of fabric could render the entire multimillion-dollar system useless. Any return to school buildings at this point seems likely to be under the cover of mandatory face masks due to the global coronavirus pandemic. —L.E.
Digital classroom makeovers
With many schools likely to use at least some virtual learning this fall, teachers and administrators across the country have spent countless hours developing detailed digital classrooms, painstakingly stocking tiny virtual bookshelves, and designing colorful motivational posters for walls made of pixels.
Bitmoji classrooms have emerged as a popular option. The software allows teachers to create an avatar and insert it into a virtual classroom setting. Students can interact remotely by clicking on links. Sample classrooms and tutorials are making the rounds on educational websites, but they are also igniting fierce debates on social media.
The pro-Bitmoji crowd says the peppy visual displays will provide comfort and add cheer for learners in a stressful time. But others say the trend distracts from the more pressing goal of developing high-quality, rigorous instruction coming off a patchy spring semester. Special education advocates also complain that the colorful rooms, while visually appealing, often do not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, leaving countless students with special needs unable to use the features. —L.E.
Milking it mid-pandemic
Coronavirus shutdowns left agricultural and farming programs with an urgent and unique obstacle: how to care for livestock that still required daily feeding, milking, and veterinary care.
The University of Vermont houses about 100 dairy cows as part of its Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management program (yes, that’s CREAM for short). Concerned faculty put out the call for helping hands in March and received dozens of responses from students and alumni.
The CREAM team selected seven volunteers, several of whom aspire to be veterinarians, who have faithfully cared for the university’s Holsteins. “The incredible blessing was that we had a whole group of students raising their hands figuratively and saying ‘Pick me, pick me! I want to be part of the help!’” said University of Vermont veterinarian and faculty advisor Steve Wadsworth. —L.E.
Laura Edghill is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.