For 40 years, Robin Stauffer has taught high school English in seven different school districts in three different states. Most recently, Advanced Placement English in Katy, where she says working with kids has kept her young and lighthearted.
But since the pandemic hit, a question has nagged at her: Is it time to retire?
“I was very upset and sad. I was torn. I went back and forth,” Stauffer said.
On the one hand, she isn’t ready to leave the classroom. She’s still passionate about why she joined the profession in the first place: “To be the type of teacher that I wish I would have had when I was in public school, to kind of right the wrongs that I experienced.”
On the other hand, she knows how hard it is to maintain a campus with thousands of students. Before COVID-19, district administrators in Katy reduced their custodial staff, and it was often up to teachers to clean their own rooms.
“They don’t supply hand sanitizer. They don’t supply wipes. None of these supplies were ever given to us. You just used what you had or what teachers themselves purchased,” she said.
Stauffer waited for the Katy Independent School District to release safety plans for back-to-school. Instead, she’s seen what she called a “back-to-normal” attitude.
And then she had to consider her health: She’s 66 years old, has diabetes and a family history of heart disease, all making her more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“I just don’t trust the school district to safeguard my health during this pandemic,” she said.
Like Stauffer, many Texas teachers are on edge and considering leaving the profession even as the state’s education commissioner has declared it “safe for Texas public school students, teachers, and staff to return to school campuses for in-person instruction this fall.”
As many as one in five U.S. educators say they’re unlikely to return to the classroom because of the coronavirus, according to a national survey conducted before Texas indicated its light-handed approach to reopening schools.
“There are people that have already made the decision to quit,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers. “There’s certainly a lot of people that are considering it. I’ve heard from others as well, too. They’re single parents and they don’t have a lot of choice.”
“So they’re depending on us,” Capo said, “to help make sure that they are afforded as much safety as possible in doing that. So that’s what keeps me moving.”
Nearly one-third of U.S. teachers are 50 years or older, according to federal data. That puts them at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus. And the publication Education Week has identified more than 300 school staff and former educators who’ve died from COVID-19.
“There’s obviously a lot of fear because there are so many unanswered questions,” said Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association.
He says school staff with underlying health conditions are also concerned. Consider his own family: Candelaria is married to Patty, who is a dyslexia therapist and has had three surgeries to fix a congenital heart defect.
“There are educators, like my wife, who if the districts do not provide an alternative method for them to do their job from home without exposing themselves, (they) are seriously considering a medical leave,” Candelaria said.
Texas public school districts are still waiting for safety and health guidelines from the Texas Education Agency. They were scheduled to be released last week, but were delayed after the Texas Tribune published draft rules indicating few mandatory safety measures.
That has weighed on many teachers.
“We can’t just talk about student health and safety without talking about educator health and safety, because they’re sharing the same space,” Candelaria said.
The Association of Texas Professional Educators recently surveyed some 4,200 educators. About 60% said they were concerned about their health and safety heading into the 2020-21 school year.
Sso far, however, that concern hasn’t translated into an increase in retirements. Nearly 22,000 teachers and state employees have retired this fiscal year, compared to about 25,000 last year, according to the Teacher Retirement System.
Gov. Greg Abbott has said districts will have some flexiblity in implementing safety protocols, and allowing families to continue remote learning.
“The state has already made allocations and is prepared to continue allocations of masks for schools, allowing, I think, for a level of flexibility at the local school district level to make the best determinations for the schools in that district about what the mask requirement should be,” Abbott told KBTX-TV in a recent interview.
But, the Republican governor has told state lawmakers Texas won’t mandate schools to require face coverings or test for COVID-19 symptoms.
“It was really shocking because it seems like nobody cares what’s going to happen in the schools,” said Kristen McClintock, who’s taught special education for six years at a large Houston high school.
She has a newborn and a toddler at home and doesn’t want to expose them to the virus. Nor does she want to expose her students with disabilities, whom she says she misses a lot.
“We’re almost like a family,” McClintock said. “So it’s been really hard to not be able to see them for months. I want to see some of them graduate next year”
But every night she and her husband discuss if they can afford for her to quit and rely on his income as an online tutor.
“It would cut our finances in half,” she said. “We would have to lean on support probably from family to try and get by.”
McClintock is still deciding. First, she wants to see more health data and detailed plans from the Houston Independent School District.
But veteran educator Stauffer has made up her mind. She turned in her resignation in May.
“All my life, I’ve been a teacher,” Stauffer said. “That is who I am. And to give up my identity, it will be challenging, but I don’t feel like I had another choice.”
She cleaned out her classroom, said goodbye to students over Zoom and didn’t have any real celebration.
That is, until some of her colleagues surprised her with a car parade, waving signs and balloons as they drove by — a fitting end to a 40-year career, in the age of COVID-19.