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'I Am Terrified': Kansas Teachers Return To Classrooms Despite Fears

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Thousands of schoolteachers across the country are facing a stark choice - go back and teach in a crowded classroom during a pandemic or quit, which means paying the school district thousands of dollars to find a replacement. Stephan Bisaha of the Kansas News Service has that story.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: To understand the dilemma some teachers are facing, it helps to go back to late May. That's when Kansas teachers had to decide if they would re-sign for another year or quit. At the time, going back to school didn't seem so bad to Kelly Smith, a special education teacher at Leavenworth High School. Coronavirus cases were at their lowest number in two months, and the worst of the pandemic seemed over. But today looks a lot different. As coronavirus cases shot back up in Kansas, so did Smith's anxiety.

KELLY SMITH: I am terrified. To me, it feels like pushing, in my case, between 12- and 1,300 students into a building is the exact environment that is being recommended against.

BISAHA: Kelly Smith's school wants her teaching from one of those crowded buildings. Smith would rather quit, but she has a problem - a clause in her contract titled liquidated damages. It's common for teachers here to risk having their teaching license taken away if they resign late in the summer. Liquidated damages lets teachers keep their license. Instead, the teacher must cover the cost of hiring a replacement. In Smith's case, that would be $2,000. Smith says that doesn't give her much choice other than going back to work.

SMITH: For me, that's just shy of a month's paycheck. I mean, that would hurt probably anyone.

BISAHA: Liquidated damages are common in most Kansas school districts. They typically run a couple thousand dollars, but in some districts, the penalties can go as high as $10,000. How likely these clauses are to be in a teacher's contract varies by state. In New York, they're just about nonexistent, but most teachers in Wisconsin and Georgia have these clauses in their contracts. And here's a twist. Teachers unions often like liquidated damages. It lets teachers keep their license and protects other teachers from having to pick up the slack until a replacement teacher gets hired. But the coronavirus has teachers unions rethinking these clauses.

Margaret Ciccarelli is a lawyer at the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. She says you can't expect Georgia teachers to have made an informed decision when they signed their contracts back in April. Since then, Georgia has gone from hundreds of new cases a day to thousands.

MARGARET CICCARELLI: Teachers know that they're a member of a team. They don't want to leave their colleagues in the lurch. But teachers need to take leave and may need to leave their contract. It's an unfortunate situation but, unfortunately, one that's confronting a lot of Georgia educators.

BISAHA: Salina Public Schools in Kansas says it reserves the right to waive the penalties on a case-by-case basis but plans on holding teachers to their contracts. Human resources head Eryn Wright says for the district to properly plan for reopening, it needs to know now who's going to be there on opening day.

ERYN WRIGHT: Knowing how many teachers we have is fundamental into not only making sure we're operating within our budgets but also ensuring class size responsibilities that we've promised to our teachers.

BISAHA: Julie Manning Magid teaches business law at Indiana University. She says while courts have upheld these buy-out clauses, much has changed.

JULIE MANNING MAGID: The current pandemic situation and trying to reopen schools is a new wrinkle in a way that I'm sure these clauses have never been tested.

BISAHA: But she says the pandemic could also work the other way, bolstering a school district's argument that teachers should pay more since it's that much harder and expensive today to find a replacement willing to teach in a school building. For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Wichita.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANORAAK SONG, "HERE YOU GO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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