• As some school districts order campuses to reopen, teachers are facing the decision whether to quit their jobs or return to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The debate has led some teachers unions to file lawsuits against states where schools have been ordered to begin in-person learning again.
  • Educators say it can be difficult to remain safe even with masks, physical distancing, and surface sanitization.

Two weeks ago, Kevin Fairhurst, a high school science teacher in the Queen Creek Unified School District in Arizona, quit a job that he loves.

It happened shortly after the school board in Queen Creek, which is about 40 miles southeast of Phoenix, voted to return students in the district to in-person learning.

The district announced it would be placing 25 to 30 students in a classroom for extended periods of time, Fairhurst said.

But the data he studied showed that the school wasn’t ready for full-time, in-person learning and that doing so too early could threaten the health of the teachers as well as other school employees, the students, and families.

“The data from the experts in our health field suggested we should not yet be teaching in person because of the potential for this to cause more outbreaks,” said Fairhurst, who taught biology and anatomy and is married with four children.

“I had to consider the health of my family. I am a science teacher. We gather evidence and we make decisions. If there is competing data, we look at both and weigh them,” Fairhurst told Healthline.

He resigned on August 13. He wasn’t the only teacher at the school to give notice. He notes that nine of the 17 science teachers at the two high schools in his district have quit.

Fairhurst, for one, doesn’t regret his decision.

“This is the hardest professional decision I’ve ever made,” he said. “I have a passion for education. I love being in the classroom.”

Fairhurst fears there will be another bump in COVID-19 cases “as schools reopen around the country and more districts open in September or October.”

Meanwhile, at the J.O. Combs Unified School District, which neighbors Queen Creek, the board also voted to approve 100 percent in-person learning.

But teachers in that district responded by calling in sick in what became a revolt against the district’s decision.

The Combs district subsequently held an emergency board meeting, and the board voted 4-1 to resume virtual learning.

The new normal for teachers

Chaos and confusion are common now for the 4 million instructors who teach kindergarten through 12th grade in the United States.

The same can be said for the 1.3 million educators who teach at a college or university.

Without a federal mandate, each state, county, city, district, and individual school is handling the situation a little differently based on state orders, district decisions, parental and student and local input, and in some cases individual school and principal directives.

Teachers aren’t expected to wear hazmat suits. But it’s close.

Many educators are wearing face shields, and some schools are erecting glass partitions between each student and for the teacher, and providing other personal protective equipment.

Students and teachers will be getting their temperatures checked every day in most schools. Most students except for perhaps the very youngest will be wearing masks.

Physical distancing will be enforced, even on the playgrounds at recess.

Colleges are hot spots for COVID-19

At the college level, there’s already been a surge of new COVID-19 cases on campuses since reopening began.

The University of Alabama has had more than 550 people test positive, the majority of them students.

At Notre Dame, nearly 500 students and a staff member have tested positive so far this month.

All of which begs the question: Can teachers be expected to provide in-person learning that is safe for both the instructors and the students?

That question is causing widespread anxiety, fear, and anger among America’s educators, students, and their families.

Iowa’s education battle

In Iowa, the issue has grown increasingly contentious since Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation last month requiring schools to provide students with at least 50 percent of classes in person.

An Iowa teacher’s union and the Iowa City Community School District responded with a lawsuit last week asking a judge to block enforcement of Reynolds’ order.

Officials with the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) and the school district said in an ISEA press release they were filing the lawsuit to “confirm the authority of local school districts and their boards of directors in making decisions in the best interest of health and safety regarding school closures, virtual learning and other important measures.”

The plaintiffs said the governor exceeded her authority and that local school boards have the primary authority over their education plans.

The Iowa City school board had voted last week to join the ISEA’s lawsuit against the state, but it also said the district would start classes with 50 percent in-person instruction to comply with the requirement.

That all changed on Wednesday when the state education department granted the Iowa City school district permission to teach classes online for the near future.

The move was prompted in part by reports that Iowa set a one-day record with 1,475 new confirmed COVID-19 cases this week. Johnson County, where Iowa City is located, also set a one-day record with 334 new cases.

Brady Shutt, an Iowa City high school government teacher and president of the Iowa City Education Association, told Healthline earlier this week that the governor’s office had forced his district to prepare for in-person teaching sooner than he and his colleagues had hoped.

He said a decision to return to the classroom, whenever that may be, is not one to be taken lightly by him or his wife, who is also a teacher.

Shutt said the actions of Iowa state officials make the process of ensuring the highest levels of safety considerably more challenging if and when teachers and students return to school.

“The late-in-the-game proclamations and guidance from the state have the effect of imposing a one-size-fits-all approach at the very time we most need our locally elected officials and authorities to respond to the conditions in their community,” Shutt said.

He remains confident that his side will prevail in court.

“Our teachers are committed to our students and to our profession. We are working night and day to provide a safe, world-class education to all students, in whatever form that is,” he said.

Des Moines teachers also defiant

Despite the fact that Iowa is seeing a record number of COVID-19 cases this week, the Iowa City Community School District remains the only district among 350 in Iowa to be given the go-ahead by Governor Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Education to begin the year with virtual learning.

In Des Moines, a request by public school officials to begin the year with primarily virtual learning was denied by the Iowa Department of Education.

Des Moines Public Schools, which has more than 33,000 students and nearly 5,000 employees, responded by filing a lawsuit this week against the state to reverse the decision.

The petition asks the court to issue an injunction to set aside the state’s decision as well as review the state’s authority to override the authority granted under Iowa law to locally elected school boards.

“The governor and her agencies have decided to ignore the local decision-making authority set out in the law to try and force their will on school districts to do things we all know are simply not safe at this time,” Kyrstin Delagardelle, chair of the Des Moines school board, said in a statement.

The governor replied that she was “disappointed to hear that the Des Moines Public School system plans to sue the state rather than to work cooperatively to develop a return to learn plan that complies with the law and meets the educational and health needs of Iowa’s children.”

On Friday, Phil Roeder, the Des Moines Public Schools director of communications and public affairs, told Healthline that “Des Moines Public Schools has grave concerns about the process the state has put in place and the extreme positivity rate they’ve set to even be considered to do virtual learning.”

“It is simply not in the best interest of the health and well-being of our students, staff and community, which is why we had no choice but to take the governor and her agencies to court,” he added.

Roeder said the governor has essentially put school districts “on a tight rope with no net and the rope is fraying, causing confusion and concern for educators and parents alike.”

The Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, printed an editorial this week in support of more flexibility for school district’s across the state.

The newspaper writes, “The governor seems to not understand the danger of the virus, and her administration’s problems with data have eroded public trust.”

In a statement, Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Ahart said that as the COVID-19 situation continued to worsen in Iowa, the district altered its plan in order to safely start the school year through primarily virtual learning.

“We sought every opportunity to cooperate and collaborate but, after exhausting those avenues, [the school district] was left with little choice but to pursue legal action for an injunction to set aside the state rejection of our virtual learning plan and to review the state’s authority,” Ahart said.

He explained the lawsuit is about “local control and who is best positioned to make decisions to promote the health and safety of our students and staff, their families and the broader community while pursuing our core mission: educating our students.”

Meanwhile, in nearby Ankeny, Iowa, seven students and one school employee reportedly tested positive for the virus on Wednesday, just one day before classes there started.

The case in Florida

Meanwhile, in Florida, another court case could act as a precedent for Iowa and other states.

A Florida judge sided this week with the Florida Education Association, ruling that the state’s order to require schools to teach students in the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic is unconstitutional and ignores safety concerns.

Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson granted the request in a lawsuit filed by the teachers union to block the order issued in July by state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran compelling schools to reopen 5 days a week for families that didn’t want their children to do all virtual learning.

The state has appealed, but Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram told The Washington Post that his district can now plan for a safe school reopening that follows local health guidelines.

“We won because we are on the side of right, on the side of public health and safety,” Ingram said.