For Kim Cook, retirement was the only guarantee of protection against COVID-19.
The 57-year-old worked as the media specialist for W.W. Irby Elementary School in Alachua for nine years. Leading up to the start of the school year, Cook was sure that schools would not reopen for in-person teaching in the fall.
But they did.
Following Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s July reopening mandate for Florida schools, all teachers prepared for an inevitably chaotic start to the school year. While students were given the choice of returning to school or watching lectures from home, teachers were less expendable.
Many were asked to return to in-person teaching, but as cases in Florida continued to rise, fear of the virus mounted, leading many teachers to resign or retire.
While not all resignations were motivated by COVID-19, between mid-July and September, the Alachua County School District saw about 67 teacher resignations and 23 retirements, according to district records. In 2019, about 55 teachers resigned and seven retired in the same time span.
Cook was asked to fill out a questionnaire to determine whether she was eligible to teach digitally, she said. Teachers over the age of 65 or with existing medical conditions were given first priority to teach remotely, followed by those who lived with immunocompromised family members.
Cook informed the school that her 62-year-old husband had several underlying medical conditions, but her request to teach remotely was denied, she said.
At that point, she decided to retire from her 33-year teaching career two years ahead of schedule.
“I didn’t want to put him at any risk because I don’t think he’d survive the virus if he caught it,” Cook said. “I wasn’t so sure how I would fare either. I was just completely uncomfortable seeing kids face to face.”
While early retirement was an unexpected financial strain for Cook and her husband, even if she had been allowed to work remotely, she said, the fear of suddenly being asked back on campus remained.
“I’ve heard from teachers around the district that after the first day, they had parents saying ‘We can’t do this digital stuff,’ and they brought their kids back to school,” Cook said. “So you have no guarantee that you’re going to continue teaching digitally.”
Had she kept working, Cook said, the stress of catching the virus would have kept her from being the best teacher she could be.
But approximately 1,900 teachers are still working for the district, according to Jennifer Hill, its program services specialist. Some go into work with masks in hand, while others hide behind desks shielded by a protective layer of shower liners.
At Buchholz High School, 59-year-old AP U.S. history teacher Scott Allen has to juggle both virtual and classroom students, all while adapting to new technology and attempting to keep himself and his students safe.
Allen has been teaching for 35 years, but this year, he said, the first week of school was the worst week he could recall in the history of education in Alachua County.
“We’re teaching half the kids in class, half at home,” Allen said. “We can only teach the ones in school a certain way and only the ones home a certain way. The first week felt like a year.”
Given his age and the new school regulations for COVID-19, Allen said he considered retirement this year. While he said retiring was a feasible option financially, his love of teaching ultimately won out.
“I think they (the kids) are looking for a little stability and normalcy,” Allen said. “I felt like I could help a little bit if I went back.”
Despite his continued desire to support his students, Allen said the new classroom adjustments interfere with his ability to teach. Through HyFlex, a learning model that combines hybrid and in-person instruction, Allen has to focus on teaching a group of virtual students, while about 15 others are also sitting in his classroom.
The additional elements Allen has to work with, he said, almost make him forget that his health is also a concern.
“When I wake up in the morning, I don’t think, ‘Oh no, I’m going to get COVID,’” Allen said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh crap, I hope that Zoom works. I hope I’m able to learn how to post the link.’ Those are my worries now.”
Allen said he is at peace with his decision to keep working, but he can’t ignore the fact that many of his colleagues are contemplating retirement after just a week back at school, he said.
Frustrations with the new teaching model are very real for teachers, according to Carmen Ward, the president of the Alachua County Education Association, the union representing many district teachers. The flexibility of having both virtual and in-person students presents a “revolving door” of difficulties that teachers must now confront.
Ward worked throughout the summer to negotiate compensation, working conditions and terms of employment for the school district’s employees this year. She said there is a spirit of collaboration now more than ever with the district’s administration to provide the best conditions for teachers and students.
“They are completely overwhelmed,” Ward said. “Having way too many students, having parents constantly being able to judge your every word because they are Zoom bombing classes. There’s so many issues, and that’s not fair to teachers.”
Ward said as schools continue to lose teachers with over 30 years of experience, they are losing people who used to hold their schools together. Still, new teachers need to be supported as they go through these adjustments, she said.
“The union is always advocating for the employees,” Ward said. “We are working together and the silver lining of having a crisis is it brings out the best in people, so I think that is the key.”