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At-Risk Teachers Struggle With Returning To In-Person Classes

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So in this pandemic, some school districts have been returning to in-person learning, but staffing has not been easy. There are teachers who don't feel safe with this shift, and they feel as if they've been left with no good options. Liz Schlemmer from North Carolina Public Radio has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAY: In your journal for today, share a memory that you have of a drill. It could be an evacuation drill. It could be a fire drill.

LIZ SCHLEMMER, BYLINE: High school teacher Kay (ph) spent eight weeks this fall leading classes from inside a sound booth in her school's auditorium. Her students tuned in from home or the theater rows below.

KAY: I come in in the morning when it's still dark and there's no one around, and I don't touch any surfaces. And then I get into the booth, and I shut the door, and I stay there.

SCHLEMMER: She stayed there because she has underlying health conditions that put her at high risk of severe illness if she gets COVID-19, among them chronic heart disease. She has a pacemaker, and she gets easily winded. When her school in western North Carolina reopened for hybrid learning, her district denied her request to teach remotely despite her serious health conditions.

KAY: There was no question for me that I would qualify. And so when I got the letter from HR, I was really surprised.

SCHLEMMER: Kay is a nickname her students sometimes use. She asked that NPR not use her full name because she fears speaking out could hurt her job. In mid-December, Kay got some good news. Her school board voted to shut down in-person learning until mid-January.

KAY: I just felt glued to my seat and couldn't really process, at first, the amount of relief that I was experiencing. And then almost a split second later, I realized that it was only going to last until January - and then a sense of powerlessness.

SCHLEMMER: Kay isn't the only teacher feeling powerless. Media reports show teachers around the country have been denied requests to work from home, including in Texas, Florida and Ohio. Many of these teachers wanted to work remotely because of the risks to themselves or people in their households. Faced with no good options, teachers and their superintendents have felt forced to make decisions they never wanted to make.

LYNN MOODY: It becomes a very complex formula.

SCHLEMMER: Lynn Moody is the superintendent of Rowan-Salisbury Schools, a mid-sized district northeast of Charlotte. When her schools return to in-person classes, her staff hustled to find a remote teaching position for every high-risk teacher who needed one. But it wasn't easy.

MOODY: You may want to teach in the virtual school, and we need a virtual schoolteacher, but your background and certification does not match the need of the students. You teach art, and we need an English teacher. Or you teach high school, and we need an elementary teacher.

SCHLEMMER: School districts still using remote instruction have had it a little easier. Tony Jackson is the superintendent of Vance County Schools, a rural district north of Raleigh. In his district, all students are learning virtually, but teachers are expected to work from their classrooms. Employees who want to work from home were allowed to do so provided they could show documentation of their or their family member's health risk.

ANTHONY JACKSON: This is not anybody's fault. But we've got to have structures in place to manage it because, at the end of the day, we still have this natural tension of we've got to offer school, but we also have to be employee-friendly.

SCHLEMMER: Some teachers have faced hard choices and ultimately resigned mid-career or retired early. Kelley Poulos taught high school English in Concord for 17 years. She retired this fall mid-semester over concerns about the health of her mother, who lives with her.

KELLEY POULOS: When I was trying to make the decision, I was in tears.

SCHLEMMER: Poulos' retirement came two years earlier than she had planned.

POULOS: The bottom line was worst-case scenario was something that I just couldn't deal with. You know, bringing it home and my mother or my husband getting sick and dying or having health problems the rest of their life with it.

SCHLEMMER: Her decision came at a cost. Because she retired before she was eligible for full benefits, Poulos will lose more than $400 a month from her pension for the rest of her life. For NPR News, I'm Liz Schlemmer in Durham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.