COVID-19 Leaves Teachers With a Terrible Choice: Their Work or Their Family

How can teachers also parent if schools are asking them to choose between their work and their families' well-being?

[PHOTO: Woman teaching in front of a camera]
Teachers who do return to in-person instruction are feeling pressure to put their feelings of insecurity and stress aside. Shutterstock

As the summer winds down and some schools start in-person classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students’ safety has been at the forefront of concerns. But what about teachers’ safety?

Teachers who work in districts with in-person instruction are left questioning whether their health, family, and safety outweigh returning to their classrooms.

A majority of them are worried. “Eighty-two percent of K-12 teachers say they are concerned about returning to in-person teaching this fall, and two-thirds prefer to teach primarily remotely,” NPR reported in early August. School districts that dismiss these concerns and try to force teachers back into the classroom might worsen an already dire national teacher shortage, middle school teacher Kelly Treleaven wrote in the New York Times.

Kaitlin Johnstone, a public school teacher, decided to take an unpaid leave from work this year. She told Rewire.News she knows of two teachers at her school who are also taking leave, and many others who want to but cannot risk unemployment.

In Florida, where Johnston teaches, a surge of COVID-19 cases in children has led to a spike in hospitalized kids. So as a first-time mother with a young child, Johnstone said she based her decision on her family’s safety.

“I feel like the conversation, rightfully so, is not as much about the teacher’s concerns and is really child-focused at the moment,” Johnstone said.

“As a mother, I hate the idea of kids not being able to return to school [and] missing things like socializing,” Johnson added. “But from an educator’s perspective, I think parents are a bit in the dark when it comes to what this school year will actually look like. Kids won’t be able to socialize—they will be separated and masked with minimal interaction.”

My sister Allison is a teacher, and it’s been heartbreaking to watch her wrestle with returning to the classroom. Our parents are both cancer survivors and immunocompromised; with their well-being and her young kids in mind, Allison, who teaches in Pennsylvania, is taking unpaid leave for the first half of the school year.

“It was a very hard decision to make,” she told me, though she recognizes that not all school districts have an association or union that can help facilitate the choice like hers did.

“The decision was more complex for me because I work with children with autism. They need consistency, and the idea of me not being there for them made me sick to my stomach. I had to figure out my comfort level about going there, and then returning home to my children and my parents.”

A quarter of public school teachers are over the age of 50, and many have their own health to take into account.

The pandemic has forced Kirsten Riehle, a Waldorf school teacher in Minnesota with decades of teaching experience, into early retirement. Riehle, who lives with Lyme disease, had planned on working for another seven years. But she believes teaching isn’t safe for her now, even with protective measures in place. One of her concerns is whether educators will truly be able to enforce safety guidelines and protocols.

“I think at the beginning it will be easier to be vigilant, but little things here and there will start to become more lax,” Riehle said. “It’s hard to not rush over and put your hand on the shoulder of a child who has fallen down at recess for example. People often grow impatient with strict rules, and when that happens, when you’re tired, you start to let things slide and fall back into old habits.

“I think no matter what you do,” Riehle added, “no amount of precaution is going to satisfy everyone.”

Teachers who do return to in-person instruction are feeling pressure to put their feelings of insecurity and stress aside. The profession has long been synonymous with dedication.

“You have an innate feeling to not let your kids down,” Johnstone said. “Teachers are the type of people who will push through no matter what. They show up for their kids and do their best.”

“For so many students, especially in disadvantaged areas, going to school means going to a safe space,” Allison added. “In my classroom, I often see these children more than their parents do. Going to school can often mean a guaranteed meal, support, and security they don’t always get outside school walls.”

When in-person school will feel safe for everyone seems impossible to know.

“It’s a fantasy that we want to do this right now,” Riehle said. “We all want it to be true: Kids want to be back, teachers want to be back, parents want to be back. We might all wish that to be the case, but at this moment, it simply just can’t happen.”