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Health, Science & Environment

It's Always Been Hard For Teachers To Stay Home When Sick — COVID Has Only Made It Harder

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Teachers are required to stay home this year if they have any symptoms consistent with the coronavirus. But it’s not always possible to find a substitute. And even if one is available, they can’t teach online if the school shifts to remote learning.

Brooke Johnson doesn’t see how she could’ve contracted COVID-19 anywhere but at school.

The middle school teacher said her family has been careful since March, strict about wearing masks and maintaining physical distance. And for several weeks prior to testing positive, she said she hadn’t been anywhere except for school and home.

She said her school, Shoreline Junior High in the Davis District, has been supportive, even granting her request for a plexi-glass for her desk, but she still caught the virus.

Part of the problem, she said, was they opted to shift schools from two alternating in-person days a week to four days a week in the classroom last month.

Her district, the second largest in Utah, has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases of any in the state. And while state public health officials argue the virus is mainly spreading through causal social gatherings, rather than in schools, Johnson and several other teachers KUER spoke with find that hard to believe.

In a normal year, Johnson said she tries to tough it out when she gets sick and goes to school anyway. It’s a lot of work preparing for substitute teachers and they can also be hard to come by, especially at the last minute. If a sub isn’t available, the job falls to other teachers or staff at the school.

“No one wants to be the person who called in sick and makes secretaries and aides who are already busy with other things fill in in your class for you,” she said.

Deborah Gatrell, a high school social studies teacher in the Granite District, which has seen 1,283 cases as of Friday, said teachers have long faced challenges taking time off of work. But the pandemic has made it even harder.

She said last week alone there were two days where five teachers at the school were out sick or in quarantine but couldn’t find substitutes.

“And that was with two or three other high schools closed down in the district due to COVID outbreaks,” Gatrell said. “So you would’ve thought there would be more subs available. There just aren’t.”

She said there was already a statewide sub shortage last year, but a lot of subs this year haven’t returned because they don’t get health insurance or benefits.

“It's to the point now where the district has started using their crisis subbing plan, where they're pulling people out of the district office,” she said.

Teachers this year are required to stay home when they have coronavirus symptoms. Johnson said she got lucky and found someone willing to fill in for the two weeks she was supposed to be out. But shortly after she tested positive, a coronavirus outbreak forced the whole school online, which meant the sub was pretty much useless.

“That created a whole other problem because there's no way for subs to do our classes online,” she said. “They don't have access [to online material] and they haven’t been trained.”

Christopher Williams, communications director for the Davis School District, said teachers are in a tough spot when they get sick.

They do have two extra weeks of paid time off this year specifically for COVID-19 — in addition to regular sick and personal leave — but given the uncertainty of this year, he said many teachers will probably try to avoid using it.

“I do know that there may be some teachers out there who will feel like, ‘Oh, gosh, do I want to take that sort of leave now or wait because I can't necessarily predict what the future will be,’” Williams said.

That’s how Johnson feels. She’s already used up her COVID leave and will soon have to start dipping into her personal time. But her symptoms aren’t going away.

Given the tough choices, some teachers have encouraged their colleagues to file workplace safety complaints. Johnson said she’s considered it, but hasn’t gone through with it. She said for now she hopes her district returns to the hybrid model.

“It was helping keep schools open,” she said. “Parents, some of them didn't like it, but their kids were at least getting two days [in person] that were consistent and there was a routine.”

She said she’ll try to get back to teaching remotely next week. But if her school switches back to in-person classes after Thanksgiving and she still doesn’t feel better, that’s yet another disruption her students will face.

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