As the coronavirus pandemic continues into the 2020-2021 school year, teachers face unique and unprecedented challenges. Widely hailed as heroes at the beginning of the pandemic, many teachers now feel overlooked, forgotten, and fearful of what the future holds.
Districts Impose Fees for Cutting Contracts Short
In many districts around the country, teachers have felt forced to choose between their health or their jobs. At Queen Creek Unified School District in Phoenix, Arizona, for example, eight teachers resigned between the end of July and early August, citing health concerns as their rationale. Unlike other districts using a hybrid blend model of teaching, Queen Creek started the year face-to-face, something that posed an unavoidable conflict for older teachers and those with high-risk loved ones.
Tensions in districts like Queen Creek have grown, especially as those districts impose fines or temporary suspensions for teachers who renege too close to the start of the school year. Karen Oliver, a special education teacher, for example, was fined 3% of her salary when she resigned in July. Oliver made her decision to protect her sick 87-year-old mother, but found out her wages would be garnished until she paid her full fee to the district.
Across the country in Des Moines, Iowa, teachers face the same conflict. According to the Des Moines Education Association, 15 teachers have contacted the union to ask about the option of resigning if they are required to return to their classrooms this fall. Just like the educators in Queen Creek, the teachers have been advised that they will have to pay thousands of dollars to break their contracts, along with risking their teacher licenses.
Yet a few thousand dollars isn’t “that much” compared to the fees as high as $10,000 charged to teachers in Kansas who cut their contracts short. “It’s not that teachers are lining up to resign,” said English teacher Gabriel Costilla. “That’s not what they want to do, they want to teach. But they just want to have that choice to do it safely.”
Many Teachers Feel Forgotten
The COVID-19 crisis is bringing to light many deep-seeded issues in education. The average annual pay for teachers has been falling steadily since the mid-1990s. In fact, teacher’s weekly wages are 17% lower than the compensation for comparable workers, according to a 2015 analysis. Back in 1994, they were only 1.8% lower.
Protests in 2018 and 2019 highlighted this issue, but little changed, and now in the era of COVID-19, teachers are feeling the sting more than ever. With the issue of safety now brought into the mix, there’s no clear answer in sight.
Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, explained that a growing teacher shortage is now exacerbated by a substitute shortage. “A lot of those individuals are in the age range where it’s possible for them to contract this virus and have it be very detrimental to them,” he said. “They’re making the choice of not returning to schools and it doesn’t appear that there are people who are willing to step up to replace them as subs in our buildings.”
It’s nearly impossible to predict how schools across the country will navigate the remainder of the school year as teachers try their best to make decisions that are best for their students, their families, and themselves.