Dave Galloway, an Army veteran and sixth-grade science teacher in Jackson County, is used to assessing risk in his life.
When COVID-19 swept over Florida this spring, the 64-year-old refrained from going to church and restaurants. He ordered groceries online. And he made sure to wear a face mask and carry hand sanitizer every time he left the house.
Then came the notice that Jackson County schools would resume in-person instruction without a requirement for staff and students to use face masks on campus at all times. The announcement prompted Galloway to seriously consider early retirement.
“For the first time in a very long time, I am feeling stressed. It is just a lot for me to process because I am being asked to do something [for which] the science and the data are telling me there is an untenable amount of risk involved,” he said.
Galloway is one of many teachers who feel that the reopening of schools amid the pandemic is forcing them to choose between their livelihood and their health, as Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran push school districts to offer in-person instruction to students in August.
As schools begin to reopen, surveys show that teachers across the state are deciding to resign, retire early or take a leave of absence, rather than return to campus this month.
Teachers in fear across the state
In a July survey, 52 educators in Pasco County, or roughly 1% of respondents, said that they would either resign or take a leave of absence if asked to come back, according to school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty.
Fourteen Pinellas County school employees resigned before the start of the school year and 47 have requested a leave of absence, Associate Superintendent of Human Resource Services Paula Texel said at a school board meeting last week.
In rural Jackson County, eight teachers have said they would take a leave of absence, two said they would resign and two others said they would retire early, said Galloway, who serves as the president of the Jackson County Education Association. The vast majority of teachers, however, are coming back to school, said Jackson County Superintendent Larry Moore.
A mid-July survey conducted by the Florida Education Association (FEA) found that 18,082 educators said the pandemic has “made them more likely to retire or leave education earlier than planned.” But it is unclear how many of them have acted on that sentiment.
The FEA, the state’s largest teachers union, conducted the survey prior to filing a lawsuit challenging a July 6 emergency order issued by Corcoran that requires schools to reopen in August, unless state and local health officials say otherwise.
Lawyers representing DeSantis and Corcoran have asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the order doesn’t require school districts to remain shuttered. But the FEA’s lawyers argue that schools risk losing funding if they don’t comply with the mandate.
Teachers “have rushed resignations and retirements, even with retirement penalties” to avoid returning to campus in August, the union’s lawyers wrote in a response to the state's motion to dismiss the case.
A push for in-school learning
DeSantis has been adamant that all school districts should offer in-person instruction in August, while also maintaining that district employees and teachers should not be forced to return to school if they are uncomfortable about the virus.
The governor held a televised address on Aug. 12 touting in-person instruction and praising teachers and administrators who have returned to school campuses.
He said teachers are bringing a "renewed sense of normalcy" to families after months of the COVID-19 pandemic. He recounted reports from educators, including a Baker County teacher who said she had one of the best first days of school in her career.
"Students are in a safe environment where they can have that connection to their teachers that distance learning cannot quite provide," DeSantis said.
But local school officials say they are trying to balance teachers’ requests to teach online or work remotely with students’ demands for in-person instruction.
More than 1,500 school employees in Pinellas County have requested an alternative work assignment, Texel told the school board. The vast majority of the requests – 1,115 – came from workers who say they are uncomfortable going back to work, but priority is given to employees with underlying medical conditions or who are age 65 or older, she added.
The requests are granted based on availability at each school and certifications, Texel said.
“It is all based on the student responses and the needs of the students at the school,” she said.
The same dynamic is playing out in Pasco County. More teachers will be able to teach remotely if more parents choose online classes for their kids, Hegarty said.
Safety vs. solvency
Many teachers have decided to go back to school despite COVID-19 concerns due to financial needs or fear they would be depriving students who opt for in-person learning.
“I honestly feel like in-person school is so important, and I fear that if we swing too far where everyone should do online, the state might close brick-and-mortar schools for good,” said Eric Rodriguez, a high school computer-lab teacher in Suwannee County.
The educator's commitment to teaching, however, does not erase his coronavirus concerns. Rodriguez said that, while it felt good to be back at work, the district’s lax face mask policy is unsettling. He estimated that roughly 40% of individuals at his school wore face coverings the first week.
Finances weighed heavily on Collier County high school teacher Sarah Ross’ decision to return to work.
“I am the full provider for my family, so it is very hard for me to wrap my mind around walking away from the job and not having any income,” Ross said. “I have no idea what I would do. I need to pay the bills.”
Ross, 39, said the district’s decision to require students and staff to wear face masks on campus made her decision easier. In addition to a mask, she plans to wear eye protection and will adhere to a strict routine when she returns home.
“I’m gonna get home and take my shoes off and put my clothes in the washer and go straight to the shower,” she said. “I want to decontaminate before I come in contact with my daughter.”
Galloway, who does not have the comfort of a mask mandate in Jackson County, decided not to retire early because he said the move would have taken a financial toll on his retirement plans.
In addition, Galloway said, his wife is also a teacher and she plans to go back to work full time next week.
“It’s a bit of a conundrum,” he said. “My risk would have been diminished but it would not be completely eliminated. There’s also the sense that I would be abandoning my wife.”
Classes begin remotely in Miami-Dade County on Aug. 31.