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Weighing health risks, some 'heartbroken' teachers retire instead of returning to class

Weighing health risks, some 'heartbroken' teachers retire instead of returning to class

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Mary Schlieder wasn’t planning on retiring until next year, but the 62-year-old special education teacher decided she couldn’t risk going back this fall into a classroom full of kids.

Despite what she said was her Nebraska school district’s “heroic” efforts to create a safe reopening plan during the coronavirus pandemic, Schlieder retired from her post at Norris High School after 28 years in the profession.

“I just couldn’t see a scenario where I could be physically safe,” she said.

Concern over COVID-19 is causing some Nebraska teachers to consider retirement or other options because they believe that teaching kids in person would put themselves or a loved one at greater risk. Some are asking for reassignment to remote teaching this fall. Others have asked for a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Officials from several Omaha metro area school districts said that the percentage of teachers who won’t return is small, and that administrators have worked with reluctant teachers to accommodate their concerns.

But any staff losses would increase demand for new hires as well as substitutes, many of whom are retired teachers who may have the same reluctance about returning to the classroom because of their age.

Robert Miller, president of the Omaha Education Association, said teachers have inquired with the union about resigning or retirement, but he did not have hard numbers on how many teachers have decided to leave.

“With the cases going up in the last couple of days, it doesn’t calm the anxiety, the fear of going back,” he said. “But teachers want to go back. They want to be in person; however, safety is of utmost concern right now.”

Nearly 12% said it was unlikely, and 11% indicated they were unsure.

Since then, several Nebraska teachers unions, including Omaha’s, have publicly voiced concerns about reopening school with in-person students, calling on districts to go entirely remote or reopen with only half the students attending school on any given day.

On July 17, the Omaha Education Association asked for full remote learning, saying the Omaha Public Schools plan that splits the students into two groups attending part of each week was not safe enough.

The association, which represents 2,800 OPS staff members, cited concern that coronavirus cases were rising and that students involved in extracurricular activities already had tested positive.

The Lincoln Education Association a day earlier had asked the Lincoln school board to delay opening and go entirely remote until a rise in cases subsided.

Maddie Fennell, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said the state union has received “many” retirement inquiries.

Nebraska has already experienced a shortage of substitutes in recent years. If subs decline to sign up and fill vacancies, schools will have to scramble to figure out what to do with a classroom full of students with no teacher, Fennell said.

“I think there will be very few subs available, which will be a huge issue,” she said. “As teachers become ill, there will be no one to take their classes. Does that mean that students will be split (among other classrooms), decreasing the social distance and increasing the potential contagion in other rooms?”

District officials have attempted to gauge teachers’ feelings about returning. Some have also tracked the number who won’t return to the classroom.

Springfield Platteview schools, as of last week, had no teachers saying they wouldn’t return to the classroom because of concerns about COVID-19. Nor had any filed for leave.

When the district surveyed staff, 93% said they were comfortable returning to school with students, Superintendent Brett Richards said.

In the Ralston Public Schools, nearly 83% of teachers surveyed indicated they were comfortable returning, according to district officials. The remainder indicated they were not comfortable returning to the classroom, but none said they would not return.

As of last week, none had said they would not report for work, Ralston officials said.

When the Bennington Public Schools surveyed its teachers, 22 indicated they were reluctant to return. As of last week, one had indicated that he or she would not return to the classroom.

The Westside Community Schools as of last week had a handful of staff not returning because of COVID-19, according to the district. One teacher had filed for leave because of COVID-19.

In OPS, as of Thursday, about two dozen OPS teachers had inquired about family medical leave in connection with the pandemic, according to spokesman Jeremy Maskel.

Schlieder said she agonized over her decision.

She said she was the oldest staff member in her building, a 9-12 high school with more than 600 students about 15 miles south of Lincoln.

She said her job would have presented particular challenges to social distancing.

“It’s hard to not be close to kids physically as a special education teacher, she said.

She said she supports mandating masks, but she said autistic students would have a hard time wearing them.

She also felt the air-handling system in her school was not “up to snuff.”

Schlieder said Norris has “the best administrators in the world” who have worked tirelessly to develop a reopening plan that can be adjusted to changes in virus spread. The district has a tiered reopening plan that would have all students in school when the risk is low or moderate, switch to a hybrid when risk is high and go remote when it’s severe.

Schlieder has been sending emails to parents of the special needs kids she used to work with, telling them of her retirement.

She’s angry about being in this situation. She didn’t want to stop teaching. And on the first day of school, she’ll be “heartbroken.”

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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