While President Trump and his administration try to push schools across the country to reopen, Arizona is facing a situation where positive COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket and teachers who don’t feel safe returning to the classroom might retire.
School districts are worried about higher numbers of teachers opting for retirement instead of subjecting themselves to in-person classes while Arizona is facing an exponential increase in positive COVID-19 cases.
Gov. Doug Ducey delayed the first day of school until August 17, after education leaders throughout the state questioned whether Arizona was ready for in-person learning. Kristel Foster, the governing board president for Tucson Unified School District, said teachers and staff still don’t want to return to schools until the number of cases start to decrease.
“It just doesn’t make sense right now that the governor closed our buildings back in March when the numbers were so much less than they are now,” Foster said.
After backpedaling on a decision to keep schools open, Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman decided on March 15 that schools would close for two weeks. They later extended it for the rest of the school year. Arizona had just 12 confirmed positive cases and zero deaths at that point.
Foster said she was expecting a rather large number of teachers to file for retirement, but couldn’t provide a rough estimate. Anecdotally, she said retirements seem likely to climb, but she’s also hearing teachers considering taking a leave of absence or Family Medical Leave.
Leave of absence would be unpaid with no benefits, Foster said, but would still guarantee them a job after the leave is over. For medical leave, she said it depends on the situation.
Trump put pressure on governors on July 7 to reopen schools, saying he doesn’t want schools to stay closed for political reasons. His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, criticized school districts for not wanting to reopen.
“Education leaders need to examine real data and weigh risk … risk is involved in everything we do, from learning to ride a bike to riding a rocket into space and everything in between,” she said.
But in Arizona – among the worst hit states – the number of cases is still spiking.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema tweeted on July 7 that she doesn’t believe schools will reopen on August17.
“If anyone thinks our schools are opening Aug 17th given our current trajectory, think again,” she wrote. “@dougducey has been behind the 8 ball from the start of this pandemic, and the too-little-too-late half-efforts now will not lead us to safely open schools anytime soon. This is shameful.”
Chris Kotterman, the Arizona School Boards Association’s director of governmental relations, said he’s also hearing higher retirements are possible.
“A wave of retirement has been a concern for school districts for a number of years,” Kotterman said, adding that the workforce is older.
A 2015 study from the Arizona Department of Education estimated that nearly a quarter of teachers would be eligible for retirement within four years.
“Whenever you have a challenge that sort of leads teachers to be less confident of their working conditions, that’s a risk,” he said.
A spokesman for the Arizona State Retirement System said, so far, the number of teacher retirements have been on par with previous years. Kotterman said that teachers typically have to accept contracts or retire before the end of the fiscal year, though some school districts are dragging that process out because of the uncertainty over reopening.
“It feels like mayhem. It feels very unsafe and uncomfortable and I’m afraid our teachers may not come back,” Foster of Tucson Unified School District said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to announce new guidelines next week for safely reopening schools, and Trump is not a fan. He said the plan is “very tough and expensive” and said the CDC is asking schools to do “impractical things.”
“The Dems think it would be bad for them politically if U.S. schools open before the November Election, but is important for the children & families. May cut off funding if not open!” he tweeted.
Trump doesn’t actually have authority to unilaterally cut off funding for schools. While it’s unclear what, exactly, the CDC will propose, the current guidelines include temporary school dismissals in any school with a high spread of COVID-19 and modified classes for schools with a mild transmission rate. The guidelines also emphasize wearing cloth face coverings, staying home when feeling ill, stocking up classrooms with ample supplies for hand washing and posting signs that promote preventive measures.
However, they don’t mention testing protocols for schools.
The Department of Education said it is not aware of a statewide strategy for testing yet, but the state health department would know more. DHS could not be reached for comment.
Nothing in the current guidelines suggests a solution on what happens if a teacher tests positive and how schools will replace sick teachers amid Arizona’s teacher shortage. Foster said TUSD will have a quarantine zone for those who test positive.
“We will have a space set aside for when that happens so that we can get them medical attention as quickly as possible and not infect other people,” she said. However, Foster noted, schools cannot require people to say if they tested positive because of federal health privacy laws.
Even with Ducey’s delayed starting date, Arizona’s new goal of starting school on August 17 would make Arizona among the first to restart school.
Hoffman called out the president and Ducey in a statement July 7, saying the state needs to get COVID under control before moving forward. While children are at a lower risk to contract the virus, teachers and staff remain at risk for the virus, she said, and they need assurances that schools and communities have enough resources to combat the spread.
“Given Arizona’s rising case numbers and the fact that Arizona remains open, I cannot provide those assurances for the adults and students who are medically vulnerable in our school communities at this time,” Hoffman said.