At the back of a high school auditorium, past the last row of seats, is a sound booth. Normally, this is where teenage techies run lights for the high school play. Now, this is where Shellie, a teacher, leads classes from behind layers of personal protective equipment and a plexiglass window.
WUNC is using her first name only to protect her privacy.
Half her students tune into class from their computers at home, The others, whose last names end in A-L on this particular day, sit six feet apart in the theater rows below. She faces the backs of their heads, while they follow along on a projector screen.
“I am definitely in the room with them, but I'm 100% remote teaching from the booth,” Shellie explained.
She is in this sound booth because she was denied the option to teach remotely — despite her personal health risks — when the school reopened during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Of the different reasons why you can apply, why you're considered high risk, I have three different reasons,” Shellie explained.
Not the least of which is that she has heart failure — a chronic condition where her heart doesn’t always pump enough blood to meet her body’s need for oxygen. She has a pacemaker just below her collar bone, and she gets easily winded.
The CDC lists each of her health conditions as risk factors for severe illness from the coronavirus. Her doctor wrote a note urging the school district to allow Shellie to teach remotely because of her risk of severe complications if she gets COVID-19.
“There was no question for me that I would qualify,” Shellie said. “So when I got the letter from HR, I was really surprised.”
It was her principal's idea that she teach from inside the sound booth. It was not an ideal solution, but she accepted it.
Her situation may sound unique, but in many ways, it’s not.
“So many of us teachers live with and manage high-risk conditions. We're teachers, so it's part of our DNA not to wear that on our sleeves,” Shellie said. “We're about helping other people.”
It's impossible to quantify exactly how many teachers in North Carolina have been denied the option to teach remotely, as decisions are changing every day, but it's very likely in the thousands.
Many of the educators have similar reasons for requesting to work remotely. They or their family members have health conditions that could be deadly if they contract COVID-19. They have rarely left their homes since March. Several say their principals were supportive and worked to meet their needs, but their school district’s central offices denied their requests. Since being denied remote accommodations, some have resigned or retired early.
WUNC interviewed teachers in numerous counties for this story, across rural, urban and suburban areas. Many, like Shellie, did not want to give their names. Some are still teaching, or hope to teach again soon, and fear losing their jobs.
Faced with no good options, teachers have felt forced to make decisions they never wanted to make.
Teachers Resign For Safety of Family Members
Vanessa Barnett-Loro said goodbye to her class of elementary students last week, after she resigned from Wake County Public Schools out of fear for the safety of her 70-year-old mother.
Her mother lives with her, and is at high risk for severe COVID19 complications due to her age and poor health. Their family’s pandemic routine has been strict, only grocery shopping once every two weeks, with masks and goggles on.
“I was trying to figure out how I could feel safe teaching in-person, and short of a full-on hazmat suit, I'm not sure that there was a way,” Barnett-Loro said.
She doesn’t feel it’s safe for anyone to teach face-to-face while COVID19 cases in North Carolina climb to new highs, just as Wake County Public Schools -- the largest school district in the state -- welcomes students back into buildings.
“I didn't feel comfortable participating in what I think could well be a very miserably failed experiment,” Barnett-Loro said.
Barnett-Loro applied to teach remotely and was denied. She submitted a copy of the driver's license and a description that her mother is in poor health, but doesn't remember if she specified the history of blood clotting, a potential complication to COVID-19.
According to Wake County Public Schools, the district granted remote accommodations to more than 1,500 employees who normally work on-site in schools, and denied 300 others. Many of those were denied do not have serious health conditions, but live with someone who does.
Another 500 educators in Wake County have applied in the past few weeks to telework, as schools are now reopening for in-person classes.
Wake County Public Schools spokeswoman Lisa Luten said teachers with the most serious personal health risks were prioritized for teaching positions in the district’s virtual academy. The school district also considered whether an employee could do their job remotely or perform alternate work and weighed the availability and situations of teachers who are qualified to fill necessary roles.
Barnett-Loro is 35 years old and only two years into her teaching career. She plans to apply for another teaching position when the pandemic subsides and hopes to have a long teaching career.
The students she has taught remotely since August were divided evenly into three other teachers’ classrooms, increasing their class sizes.
“Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” Barnett-Loro said. “So when teachers say they’re fighting for a safe reopening, that’s not just because we’re looking out for ourselves. We’re trying to look out for everybody.”
More than 160 Wake County teachers have resigned since September, the month the school board voted for students to return in person. Twenty-nine of those resignations came from teachers who had applied to work remotely. The district employs about 20,000 people.
According to data provided by Wake County Public Schools, the total number of retirements and resignations are on par with the same time period last school year – and resignations are actually down by about a dozen employees.
Weighing Retirement Without Full Benefits
Some teachers in North Carolina have retired early, taking reductions to their pension that could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars over their lifetimes.
Kelley Poulos is a 54-year-old high school English teacher in Cabarrus County who is retiring mid-semester because her school district is transitioning to in-person classes. She is concerned for the health of her husband and her 82-year-old mother who lives with her.
Poulos graduated from Cabarrus County Schools herself, and taught her own children at the high school where she has worked for the past 17 years. She was not ready to retire, and says the hardest part about the decision was how ingrained she has been in her school community, how much it had felt like home.
“When I was trying to make the decision, I was in tears,” Poulos said.
“It just kept coming back to the bottom line was the worst-case scenario was just something I couldn’t deal with -- bringing it home and my mother or husband getting sick and dying or having health problems the rest of their life,” Poulos said.
If she continued to work another two years, she would reach 30 years of teaching service and be eligible for full retirement benefits. Since she chose to retire early, her monthly pension will be reduced by $400 a month.
She weighed that financial loss against the potential risks of returning to in-person classes this month, and being exposed to 80 teenagers every two days, for an hour at a time.
“I do believe if everybody follows safety protocols, probably the risk is pretty low,” Poulos said. “But that teenage variable is a biggie.”
Other teachers have faced even greater reductions to their pensions, depending on their salaries and years of in-state service[ES5] . Another alternative is to seek leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Employees can apply to use a certain number of their own sick days consecutively under FMLA.
That can create a greater burden on schools, which must hire a long term substitute teacher in their place. The teacher is then required to return to the classroom after their approved leave. FMLA leave is generally used for situations like recovering from surgeries, not for waiting out a pandemic.
Employment Decisions Handled By School Districts, Not The State
Tom Tomberlin is the Director of Educator Recruitment and Support for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. He’s the HR guy who has helped develop guidance for school districts as they make staffing decisions during the pandemic.
Every school district is different, as their size, geography and local COVID19 trends vary greatly.
“Any blanket decision we put out from the state would not have served all the needs,” Tomberlin said. “So we talked to schools about [how] they needed to develop their own process.”
Teachers are employed by school districts. Tomberlin says that while DPI oversees teacher licensure and provides guidance to school districts, the state agency does not have direct jurisdiction over employment issues.
“Those processes had to happen at the local level, and they had to happen with the approval of the local boards of education,” Tomberlin explained.
DPI instructed school districts to develop transparent processes for deciding which employees would work remotely or in person when schools reopen to students. All schools are expected to abide by basic social distancing measures and to require staff and students to wear masks.
The state agency provided a reopening handbook and advised school administrators to consult CDC guidelines when determining which employees are at highest risk for severe cases of COVID19 and might be eligible for remote work.
“At some point, lines have to be drawn,” Tomberlin said. “And it's at the point of the line -- those that are right above and those that are right below -- where the contention usually occurs. The important thing here is that this is done without respect to people's feelings about those lines, that it's applied equitably across all employees."
Tomberlin points out that personnel decisions are in the hands of local superintendents and their staffs, who make decisions based on local resources and needs, without respect to what the county next door is doing.
Superintendents Scramble To Keep Schools Fully Staffed
Jack Hoke is the Executive Director of the NC School Superintendents’ Association, and a retired superintendent with 32 years of school administrative experience. Many superintendents have confided in him about the logistical mess school districts must untangle to keep schools fully staffed during the pandemic.
“Right now, there's a huge shortage with substitute teachers,” Hoke said.
Many substitute teachers are retired teachers, and because of their age, Hoke says districts are having a “challenging time” recruiting them to work during the pandemic.
Another pressure on school districts is the need to meet state mandated student-to-teacher ratios in elementary schools. In middle and high schools, teachers must be certified in their subject, making it difficult to shuffle teachers or hire replacements mid-year for classes like art or French.
Larger school districts have more flexibility and resources to reassign teachers or enroll students in remote classes, but as Hoke notes, students who want to remain in remote instruction all year rarely fall into neat packages of 25 students.
“That's a real challenge to try to figure out how you meet the needs of the district and the needs of the individual employee,” Hoke said. “Sometimes you can't do that, because parents expect to have a highly qualified teacher in every classroom.”