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Teachers have lost colleagues to Covid-19 and worry about being next. But, they say, no one’s listening

Were it not for the health benefits, Aimeé Gotreaux says she would have already resigned from her job as a special education teacher in Kennesaw, Georgia.

Ever since her school district announced a return to in-person classes last October, the 26-year-old has been frustrated by the decisions made by local and state leaders.

She was angry that she wasn’t given an option to continue working remotely, despite being the primary caregiver for a mother with lung cancer. She was uncomfortable with the high coronavirus case numbers in the county, coupled with a lack of testing for employees and students. Then three educators in her district died of Covid-19 within the span of a month, and she was upset at seeing business continue as usual.

“What is the magic number for them?” Gotreaux said. “How many teachers are they going to let die before they say, ‘OK, this is a problem?'”

The past few months as a teacher have made her feel disposable, she said. So once her unpaid medical leave expires, Gotreaux plans to leave her job — and possibly the profession.

Though cases of teachers quitting over Covid-19 concerns are rare, Gotreaux isn’t alone in feeling expendable. In districts around the country, several teachers who spoke to CNN reported being at their wits’ end: constantly being asked to do more with less while feeling like their anxieties aren’t being heard.

On top of all that, they’re seeing colleagues getting sick and even dying of Covid-19 — and worry they or their loved ones could be next.

Hundreds of educators have died of Covid-19

There’s no definitive number that records exactly how many teachers, administrators and school employees have died of Covid-19, though new reports of deaths seem to surface with increasing frequency.

There was the third grade teacher in South Carolina who used her musical talents to make learning fun. The two married teachers in Grand Prairie, Texas, who died holding hands. The first grade teacher in El Paso who once went viral for teaching students to be kind. The four teachers in Montgomery, Alabama, who died within 48 hours of each other.

Various unions have compiled their own statistics. The American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions, estimates more than 530 of their members died of the virus last year. But one of the more extensive efforts to track educator deaths from Covid-19 comes from a memorial run by the trade publication Education Week.

“We felt a duty and responsibility to remember and to document as best we could the teachers, the bus drivers, the principals, the key people who keep our schools operating day in and day out,” Lesli Maxwell, managing editor of Education Week, told CNN.

As of February 1, the site estimates that at least 707 retired and active teachers, coaches, custodians and other staff members have died of Covid-19.

Crucially, that number doesn’t account for whether an employee was exposed to the virus at school or in some other setting. There’s also no evidence to suggest more teachers are dying than people in other professions. In fact, recent studies have concluded that in-person classes aren’t significantly contributing to coronavirus spread — an in-depth look at two US schools released last week found that there “was no evidence of student-to-teacher or teacher-to-student transmission” when proper precautions were taken.

Still, the loss to the profession, said Maxwell, is noteworthy.

“Every death in this pandemic matters,” she added. “Every one of these people matters and should be remembered.”

She finds it hard to sleep on Sunday nights

The deaths so far are enough to worry educators and school staff in some districts.

Cree Hare, an elementary school counselor in the Georgia district where three educators recently died, has been working in person since October.

A colleague of hers was married to one of the teachers who passed away of Covid-19. Hare, who is 43, said she knows how seriously the couple took the pandemic, but it still cost her coworker’s husband his life.

For Hare, having three educators die in a month is a clear indication that the school district should be fully virtual for the time being. But she said nothing much has changed.

So each Sunday, as the prospect of making it through another work week looms over her, Hare said she finds it difficult to sleep. The fact that her husband, also an educator, is still recovering from Covid-19 doesn’t help.

“You are risking your life every day going to work,” she said. “I don’t feel like people have compassion towards that or if they truly understand that that is what we do.”

She’s mourning her colleague’s death

For Isabel Alvarado Vasquez, a second grade teacher in San Antonio, Texas, the loss has hit close to home.

Recently, a teacher at another school in Vasquez’s district — a woman she worked with for four years in a previous job — died of complications from Covid-19. Losing a colleague to the virus encapsulates many of the safety concerns that Vasquez and her coworkers have been feeling in recent weeks.

“What made her life any less than any of these huge companies that are having their employees work from home?” Vasquez asked. “Why are we so insignificant?”

The Texas school district where Vasquez works has been conducting in-person classes since September. Parents could choose whether their child attended virtually or in person, but teachers weren’t given an option: They had to report to the building.

At first, Vasquez, who is 49, said she was willing to give the arrangement a try. Coronavirus cases in San Antonio were relatively low at the time, and teachers had been assured that schools would go fully online again if infections got out of hand, she said. But when Covid-19 cases began rising sharply around December, that didn’t happen.

Dax Gonzalez, division director of governmental relations for the Texas Association of School Boards, said that local school trustees are balancing the competing needs of their communities, administrators and teachers. There’s pressure from state leaders, too.

To qualify for state funding, every school district in Texas is required to offer an in-person learning option unless the state makes an exception due to high coronavirus spread. If a significant number of students elect to be in the classroom in a given district, in-person teaching staff will be needed to support them.

And then there are parents who fear that remote learning is causing children to fall behind or who cannot afford other child care arrangements during the day.

“It’s certainly not a lack of empathy,” Gonzalez said, of the decisions that school leaders are making. “When you’re responsible for the education of 5.4 million children across the state, there are sometimes going to be decisions that not everyone’s happy with.”

Vasquez said she recognizes the difficult choices that school officials have to make. But in that delicate balancing act, she said, she feels that the concerns of teachers aren’t given the same consideration.

“We almost feel as if we are being selfish if we’re saying we’re afraid to get sick,” she said while choking up.

He worries about infecting family members

Christopher Terrazas, who teaches English and language arts to sixth graders in the same San Antonio school district, considers teaching his true calling and cares deeply about his students.

But since students at his school started returning to the classroom, the 24-year-old says he’s felt unsafe. The culture around social distancing and other safety protocols seemed to ease up over time, with no one strictly enforcing the rules, he said. Then the notices about Covid-19 cases at the school started coming in, including two in his own classroom.

Terrazas, who lives with his mother, grandparents and sisters, said he worried about putting his family members at risk.

“It feels scary to go to your job and not know if you could catch this deadly virus and potentially bring it back home to family members who are already vulnerable,” he said.

Terrazas knows there are no easy answers, and that parents and students are struggling too. But, in challenging situations such as these, he said he would appreciate teachers being consulted.

“When decisions are made about the lives of teachers, teachers need to be involved in those discussions,” he said.

Some teachers have few options besides quitting

Whether to teach K-12 students virtually, in-person or through a combination of the two is an issue that has divided people in many of the nation’s largest school districts. And how teachers feel about their situations — and the recourse they have — varies widely from district to district and region to region.

At least 25 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have made some or all teachers eligible for a coronavirus vaccine as of February 1, Education Week reports. But eligibility does not equal availability, and it could be a while before many of those educators get a shot.

Still, some officials and parents are pushing for a quicker return to in-person classes. Though some teachers fear being back in classrooms while the virus is still raging in their communities, other leaders argue that the educational toll on students and the stress on families are more urgent concerns.

Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said he understands how educators are feeling. Though the former school superintendent currently represents other superintendents and administrators, he’s been a teacher and principal, too.

In Brown’s view, schools in his state have engaged in “very heroic efforts” to make things work, reducing class sizes, arranging food delivery for students in need and disinfecting and sanitizing buildings.

“That said, we’ve had teachers, coaches, principals, and superintendents get ill on a pretty regular basis and die,” Brown said. “It’s a pretty tragic thing to be happening in our country right now.”

Superintendents are doing the best they can, but they’re dealing with a lose-lose situation, he said. For his part, his organization is advocating that the state prioritize teachers for the Covid-19 vaccine. But he knows that the current situation is testing teacher morale.

In states such as Texas and Georgia, there’s not much teachers can do about situations in which they feel unsafe besides resigning. Still, educators there are finding ways to make their voices heard.

In September, a local teachers’ association in central Texas filed a grievance with their district over what they referred to as unsafe conditions. In October, more than 100 teachers in Austin stayed home on the first day of in-person classes despite the district’s orders. That same month, a Georgia teacher sued state leaders and local school officials for allegedly putting students, staff and families at risk.

In places with strong teachers’ unions, educators have more power.

Chicago’s planned return to in-person classes was pushed back a day after the school district and teachers’ union failed to reach an agreement. Philadelphia’s plan to return on February 22 could also face uncertainty if the teachers’ union isn’t on board. And unions in West Virginia and New Jersey have responded to reopening plans with similar pushback.

So, some are planning to step down

Gotreaux, the special education teacher in Georgia, said she’s been in a process of mourning ever since she decided to eventually leave her job.

She’s wanted to be a teacher for as long as she can remember, and isn’t really sure what other options exist for her. But given how events have unfolded in her district after the death of three educators, submitting her resignation letter won’t be hard.

Gotreaux said she was on the fence about it until she heard that the superintendent and some board members at a school board meeting refused a request to put on a mask in honor of one of the fallen teachers. The district has said board members were in compliance with a policy that allowed people to have their masks off as long as they were physically distanced.

But for Gotreaux her and other colleagues, it was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“It’s us, the teachers and staff trying to stay alive, versus them, the board members who refuse to acknowledge what we’re going through and the board members who refuse to work in the office,” she said.

Gotreaux said she feels immense guilt over the decision, knowing that some people might believe that she just wanted extra time off — or that she didn’t care enough about her students.

She does care about her students. But she wishes school officials cared about their teachers.

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