At the end of the first day back in the classroom on Monday, Kocurek Elementary second grade teacher Alyssa Baird felt overwhelmed. She was teaching students in person and over the internet and she worried about bringing the coronavirus home to her 1 year-old daughter and her mother, who watches the toddler and has a medical condition that puts her at high risk of becoming severely ill if she contracts the disease.
On Wednesday, still in the classroom until the Austin school district finds a replacement for her, she felt sick and said she had no choice other than pay $275 out of pocket to get a coronavirus rapid test. It was negative. But she said the experience reaffirmed her decision to leave her job after seven years in the classroom.
Since Aug. 1, 96 Austin district teachers have resigned or retired and and 64 more teachers have taken a leave of absence since the school year started. There are 86 classroom teacher vacancies.
“I wanted to give it a try before I threw in a towel,” said Baird, who has a master’s degree in literacy.
She said she didn’t want to take family leave because her students could be left without a certified teacher. “I love my job. I love teaching. I was going to try to stick it through especially for my principal because I have a lot of respect for her. But if I were to expose my mom to it, it’s not likely it’d be a good outcome, and exposing my daughter to it and the possibility of having long term consequences, I’m not OK with it.”
Baird said several fellow teachers have called her this week crying over the stress of the hybrid learning model — teaching simultaneously for students in the classroom and learning from home over the internet — or over fears of exposing loved ones to the virus, but are not financially able to make the same decision she did.
Austin school district leaders said they are trying to be flexible but must consider students first. The district already has approved medical accommodations to teach virtually for 730 teachers, or 72% of the 1,007 teachers who requested them, according to data released Friday. But those teachers like Baird with family members at greater risk must teach in person.
Four teachers quit on the first day of school, while others have continued teaching remotely, prompting the district require those teachers to take sick days or personal leave.
“The vast majority of families say they want to stay remotely but we’re forcing teachers and staff to be back there in person and if there are no kids there, to still teach on campus,” said Ken Zarifis, president of labor group Education Austin, which has lobbied the district to allow more teachers the choice to deliver instruction from home.
The Texas Education Agency requires school districts to reopen classrooms for any student who wishes to learn in person to within eight weeks of the start of the school year or risk losing state funding. The Austin district has had one of the most conservative approaches to reopening schools, delaying its start date until Sept. 8, then gradually allowing students in certain grades to return to school starting this week.
About 850 teachers who didn’t have accommodations to teach from home had pledged to not show up to their campuses Monday, but 104 teachers took sick days that day. Some said they stayed home without the sick days as none of their students were on campus, but district leaders said virtual teaching without accommodations is not allowed.
Despite the departures, the Austin school district, along with other area districts, have seen lower turnover rates amid the pandemic.
In Austin, which has about 5,500 educators, 193 teachers resigned or retired since the end of last school year, 87 fewer than the school year prior. Eanes, Hays, Pflugerville and Round Rock districts have also seen fewer teachers leaving their jobs.
Austin teachers are under three-year contracts and typically must be released from those contracts or face sanctions against their teaching certification. District human resources officials sent letters to teachers who resigned after the school year started indicating they continue to be “responsible for carrying out the terms of your 2020-2021 contract” unless they receive approval to be released from their contract. If teachers leave their positions, they may be labeled as abandoning their contract and may not be eligible for reemployment in the district, the letters state.
But teachers who opt to leave amid the pandemic won’t be penalized and the district won’t request the state to sanction their teaching certifications, district officials, including Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde, said. But they asked that the educators be flexible on the timing of their exits so the district can find their replacements.
“I just want to always take the opportunity to communicate to our teachers how much their work is valued in any year, particularly during these times,” said Fernando Medina, chief human capital officer. “Any time we lose a staff member it has an impact on our core mission of educating students. We are always mindful to that and working to be as flexible as we can while ensuring that we continue with our core mission of educating students. I just want to encourage our teachers to stay with us.”
Some parents have organized a “student sick out” day for Wednesday, when they will keep their children out of schools and virtual learning to “stand in solidarity” with the educators asking for the option to teach from home. Because attendance is tied to state funding, the school district will lose money if students are marked absent from instruction.
Amy Shatila, who worked for the district for 11 years until 2019 as a special education teacher and licensed specialist in school psychology, is helping to organize the movement.
“Teachers are very stretched and stressed and many of them are feeling pressure to resign or feel unsafe in their school environments,” she said, noting Austin High School had only 50 students attend in person during the week, but 100 teachers had to report in person. “All of that will cause us to lose a huge number of teachers and will also decrease the quality of instruction to our students.”
More than 40 Crockett High School advanced placement calculus students, previous students and others who go to the high school penned an open letter this week to their principal and district leaders after losing their math teacher, Shahzard Hesaaraki, whose last day was Oct. 2. The group said their teacher did not have to be physically present to do her job and connect with them, and they had been able to learn well with her online instruction. They are now being taught by a student teacher who graduates in December.
“AISD should have allowed teachers and staff who live with people who are high risk to have a choice to teach at home as well,” said Hanan Brower, one of the seniors at Crockett High School who signed the letter and is participating in next week’s sick out. “How can AISD and the state of Texas want what is best for students if we lose our valuable teachers? This policy was short sighted and will hurt all students.”