This story was published in partnership with The 19th, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom reporting on gender, politics and policy.
At a school board meeting in Phoenix earlier this month, parent after parent got up to speak, letting the tensions of a year of uncertainty spill out inside a musty auditorium at the Queen Creek Unified School District.
At issue was the upcoming school year, which was set to start August 17 almost entirely in-person. The end of the previous term had challenged their children, many parents argued, and it was time that they return to the classroom.
Why, asked one dad and a physical education teacher at a local high school, if a registered nurse he knew who is a cancer survivor had not missed a day of work, were other teachers saying they wouldn’t be willing to return?
“You can make that choice to come into work and say that …you love your profession,” he said, “then I’ll see you on the 17th, brother.”
The audience exploded in raucous applause.
Children went up to speak, too. “I hope they let me go back to normal school in person,” said one kindergartener. Another pleaded with the district through sobs: “Please, let us go back.”
But some teachers told another story: In the week before the start of school, they felt they had few options.
Resignations had started at Queen Creek — eight teachers gone between the end of July and early August. Unlike other districts across the country that were adopting a hybrid model allowing teachers to move online if they prefer, online learning in Queen Creek will come from teachers outside the district.
Many teachers feel trapped. The tension in Arizona and around the nation is dredging up a conversation on teaching contracts that in a typical year ensure educators don’t renege too close to the start of the school year — thus leaving the district scrambling to find a replacement — by imposing fines, or threatening a temporary suspension or revocation of a teaching license.
But, as special education teacher Karen Oliver stressed when she spoke at the August school board meeting, this isn’t a typical year.
Oliver had already resigned in July, knowing she, at 61, could not risk returning to in-person learning, particularly with an 87-year-old sick mother in Michigan who she planned to visit.
Still, the district was holding her to her teaching contract and fining her the customary penalty — 3 percent of her salary, or nearly $2,000.
“I am being held under my contract,” Oliver told the board, asking the district to waive the resignation fees. “I need to take care of my mother. I love my students, I have worked hard to make sure my responsibilities are taken care of. This has been a hard decision.”
This year has exposed so much of what already made the teaching profession challenging for educators. It’s often devalued work for little pay, and the question of school security was already looming. But coronavirus has further complicated that picture, leaving districts around the country to decide how to deal with the valid concerns of parents, who want their kids’ education to continue, and those of teachers, who are worried about their own health.
On top of that is the worry, held by both parents and teachers, about students’ mental health without the structure of in-person school, but also their wellbeing if coronavirus cases spread in classrooms. Already, there have been hundreds of outbreaks.
States have laid out guidelines for returning to school, but it’s up to the districts to decide how it looks in practice. So though most have been flexible, experts said, particularly with teachers who have raised red flags about safety, others, like Queen Creek, have not.
A day after the school board meeting where Oliver spoke, she received an email telling her the district would be garnishing her wages until she met her full fee.
For Oliver, that moment at the end of a decades-long teaching career captured the disregard she’s felt leaders have had toward her profession most of her life.
“Women are mostly the workers in public education, and we historically are not treated as though we’re real people,” Oliver said. “I’m listening to these people, they’re talking about, ‘We have the right to send our kids to school. We should have that choice for face-to-face.’ Nobody was considering the fact that teachers were people.”
Across the country, educators are worried. In Mississippi, some feel at risk of losing their licenses. In Kansas, the fees can be as high as $10,000 for teachers who cut their contracts short. And in Arizona, at least 109 staff members of the neighboring district to Queen Creek called in sick before the start of classes on August 17, protesting what they said were insufficient safety measures. The mass absences forced the district, J. O. Combs in Arizona, to cancel classes.
Of the 145 largest school districts that the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) tracks, nearly 60 percent have a date by which teachers need to resign to avoid a penalty. All of those dates have passed. Nine large school districts specify a monetary penalty, and 45 percent impose other penalties like a potential suspension or refusal to hire the teacher in the future, according to data from NCTQ, which is an education think tank. In 15 large school districts, teachers face potentially losing their licenses.
The question is how willing are districts to help teachers who want flexibility to teach from home, said Mark Paige, associate professor of public policy and education law at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and a former fifth grade teacher.
Paige, who has previously represented school districts in contract negotiations, said he’d advise them to consider the costs of enforcing contract rules during the pandemic.
“Just because they have a hammer doesn’t mean everything’s a nail,” Paige said. “There’s litigation costs, there’s PR costs.”
All of it is almost ironic, he said, considering that in the early months of the pandemic, teachers were heroes. Students lined up in car parades with signs to thank them. Parents started to truly appreciate how difficult it was to educate their children.
“It’s a sad commentary,” Paige said. “All of a sudden we have this appreciation of teachers. Well, how times have changed in a matter of like 60 days.”
In Wichita, Kansas, substitute teacher Kimberly Howard and English teacher Gabriel Costilla are looking at the new teachers starting this year and wondering how the decisions around coronavirus will impact them in the long run.
There’s already a substitute teacher shortage where they live, Howard said. Around the country, a teacher shortage has been raging for years. So though their district is offering teachers options such as retiring early with no penalty, they’re concerned about what the next few months will bring.
“It’s not that teachers are lining up to resign,” Costilla said. “That’s not what they want to do, they want to teach. But they just want to have that choice to do it safely.”
At his high school, a new teacher moved in a few doors down.
“I’m really afraid that some of these new teachers are going to get into this year and realize how hard all this is going to be — trying to do it virtually or even trying to do it on-site,” he said. “I’m afraid we’re gonna see some new teachers drop off in numbers that we haven’t seen in the past.”
The teacher shortage is estimated to be well beyond the 100,000 mark, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute.
Annual pay for teachers has been falling since the mid-1990s, with the median teacher salary now at about $60,000, plus benefits. Overall, teacher’s weekly wages are 17 percent lower than the compensation for comparable workers, according to an analysis of 2015 data from EPI (compared to 1994, when they were just 1.8 percent lower). The issue drew protests in 2018 and 2019 that framed the problems as a result of cutbacks on public education that will ultimately be detrimental to students, too.
Teaching is also the profession that employs the most women in the United States: 4.2 million.
“We kept seeing less people are going into education,” said Todd DeMitchell, professor emeritus of education law and labor at the University of New Hampshire, and a former educator, principal and superintendent. “It’s a hard job, pay isn’t very good and actually the thing that drives teachers out isn’t so much the pay, it’s the working conditions: ‘How am I treated?’”
What’s emerged this year with coronavirus is a fight to improve those conditions that, at times, has turned to broader social justice themes. A coalition of teachers unions around the country have been pushing not just for safety in the return to school, but for police-free schools and support covering rents and mortgages.
It’s a delicate dance, said Brad Marianno, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and an expert on education policy and teacher contracts.
“Teachers unions have to be careful not to overplay their hand here,” Marianno said. “The longer this drags on and the longer that schools remain in a distance learning option, parental support for that message is going to wane. And that’s going to maybe tip the balance toward the reopening, but right now teachers unions kind of have the strength and the voice to make sure that schools are closed.”
At risk, if parents and districts remain rigid in their demands, is a further exodus of educators from the profession, one that will ultimately hurt students of color the most.
“Your Black and Brown students in your high poverty areas, your large urban centers, will have difficulty with staffing, and so it’s likely that those students will bear the brunt of the teacher shortage,” Marianno said. “And in ways that they’ve already borne the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis in the same locations that have trouble with internet access and computer access.”
Keri Rodrigues, a Latina mother of three small boys, is worried about just that. She is the president of the National Parents Union, a network of about 200 parent organizations.
For families like hers, whose children are already at a disadvantage due to systemic racism, it’s difficult to come down on either side of the teacher/parent debate. About 80 percent of teachers are White.
“The White district was never coming to save us in the first place. We don’t have high hopes that they’re going to sweep in and save them now,” Rodrigues said.“The consequences for families like ours if we’re not reading at grade level is the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s poverty, it’s incarceration and death.”
On the issue of safety, the group largely sides with teachers. Low-income families tend to live intergenerationally, with grandparents in the home. They understand concerns about bringing home the virus, Rodrigues said.
But some teachers have pushed back against virtual learning too, saying it isn’t effective, and unions have been criticized for offering limited plans on how to improve at-home learning.
“A large majority of us understand — we don’t want to send our kids into unsafe buildings,” Rodrigues said. “The alternative is not doing nothing.”
That’s going to put a lot of the onus on parents to ensure their children are getting adequate support. In the earlier months of the pandemic, parents already got a better understanding of the kind of virtual learning their kids had access to. For some, it was not enough.
“We as parents are also going to be checking on the truancy of educators to see what we’re actually getting for our money. How many hours are educators spending actually engaged with students?” Rodrigues said. “Placing all of the responsibility on parents and families in this moment of anxiety, in the middle of a pandemic, where some of us are trying to hold on to housing, to our jobs, and the fabric of our families — and then on top of it you’re also supposed to be your child’s educator? You’re seeing the awakening of a beast that is going to transform education as we know it.”
For now, it doesn’t seem like much help is on the way.
The first coronavirus stimulus bill, the CARES Act, included some funding for public education that covered some of the existing deficits, said Marianno, the Nevada professor. But it’s dried up alongside talks of another round of stimulus as members of Congress have reached an impasse.
Senate Republicans have suggested including $70 billion for K-12 schools — two-thirds of that money going to schools that reopen in-person to some degree in the fall — $29 billion for higher education, $5 billion for other state education needs and $1 billion for the Bureau of Indian Education and outlying areas.
In the House, Democrats passed the HEROES Act in the summer that called for $90 billion for education, including $58 billion for K-12 schools and $27 billion to public universities and colleges. The bill also provides $915 billion in emergency funding for state and local governments, which could help protect public teaching positions.
But neither of the proposals has obtained bipartisan support, and it appears additional help will be unlikely this year, said Shannon Holston, director of teacher policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality.
“With the election in November, it’s really uncertain if anything will be done federally,” Holston said. “People aren’t relying on that.”
Many are waiting to see how these first months of the new school year play out, she said.
That’s frustrating for teachers like Maxie Hollingsworth, an elementary school math lab specialist in Houston. Hollingsworth said she craves leadership in her district, her state and in Congress.
“We should not be a nation of shooting stars that you never see,” Hollingswoth said. “That’s what we sort of have in Congress right now.”
She understands the debates this school year probably better than most. One of her daughters is asthmatic — “she winds up in the ER every single year from a cold” — so remote learning is critical for her. Hollingsworth’s district is 100 percent remote for the first weeks of school before they reassess later in the year, so she’ll be able to stay home with her daughter.
Hollingsworth also works with low-income families and understands deeply the challenges of an in-person return. These are families whose kids ride the bus, whose little ones can’t stick to mask mandates and whose schools can’t afford to put plexiglass around each desk. But they’re also the kids of many essential workers, who can’t stay home if the teaching is remote.
“To me, this whole pandemic has exposed so much about the United States,” Hollingsworth said. “It exposes a lot of the weaknesses in our infrastructure, a lot of the weaknesses related to school funding, a lot of weaknesses related to equity.”
To reach parity, there needs to be a consideration of everyone’s unique situations. And most of all, there needs to be choice, she said.
It reminds Hollingsworth of her school custodian whose 5-year-old is recovering from leukemia. Teachers and educational support staff have legitimate concerns, she said.
They’re also used to those concerns being ignored.
“The lack of respect for teachers, the lack of standards across the board in terms of pay, expectations — it’s very hard to recruit teachers, and now because of this, I think it’s going to be even harder. This is gonna sort of blow up the system,” Hollingsworth said. “And then people will recognize that we got to do things differently.”