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Worried About COVID In Classrooms, Some Teachers Write Wills, Consider Quitting

Photo of two teachers at a rally.
Jon Reed
Teachers demonstrate at the Capitol Friday evening to demand school districts delay face-to-face school reopening.

Last year, Steven Phelps taught math at Lakeridge Junior High in the Alpine District. But once he saw his district’s plan to return to in-person classes five days a week, plus a roster of 36 kids and little ability to keep them six feet apart, he and his wife decided he was better off leaving. 

“We have a son who has some health conditions and we've worked really hard since March to keep COVID out of our house,” Phelps said. “And we just decided it was too unsafe.”

So he put in for — and got — a transfer to the Salt Lake City School District, which is starting entirely online and will remain that way at least through the first quarter or until health conditions improve. He said because of its plan, it was the only district he seriously considered even though he’s taking a pay cut to move there. 

He’s one of many teachers who are exploring what options they have in the face of district plans that some teachers along the Wasatch Front say put them at risk of catching COVID-19. They’re looking at everything from leaving the profession altogether to creating wills. 

Phelps said he knows other teachers who have been trying to transfer into districts with plans that have a greater balance between in-person and online classes, such as Davis or Provo. 

He had some flexibility because math teachers are generally in higher demand and he also has special education endorsements. But he said it can be harder for others. 

“It really depends on the subject you teach,” he said. “And the flexibility you have is oftentimes based on that situation.”

Other teachers are opting to take a leave of absence, though that’s unpaid and teachers aren’t always guaranteed they can come back to their same job the following year. 

Caren Burns, a second grade teacher at Beehive Elementary in the Granite School District, considered doing that but said she wouldn’t be able to support herself. 

Burns said she has major concerns about her district’s plan, including her ability to maintain social distance in the classroom and few options for high-risk teachers to stay home.

And because she has asthma, she said her doctor recommended she teach online. But the number of teachers who get to do that will depend on how many students request that option, and there is a strong chance not enough will sign up to accommodate all the teachers requesting it

With not much else to consider, she said she created a will, in case the worst happens. 

“I can't really do anything right now to control my situation, but I can at least make sure I'm not leaving a giant burden for my family,” Burns said. 

Given her likelihood of returning to the classroom and interacting with lots of people, she thinks there’s a good chance she’ll catch COVID-19. She’s seen neighbors and friends of hers contract the virus, some have had serious complications. 

“It's just hard,” she said. “Quitting is an option. But I love my career. And I don't want to give it up and all of my benefits and the connections I've made for possibly a one year problem.”

Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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