In a few weeks, teachers across the nation will embark on a new school year full of uncertainty and unlike anything they've ever experienced.
A recent USA Today IPSOS poll revealed that about 20% of teachers surveyed said they have decided not to return to the classroom if they're required to teach in person.
Other educators are making contingency plans to protect themselves — and having tough conversations about their own mortality in the face of in-person teaching.
One of those teachers is Denise Bradford, who's been teaching kindergarten for 30 years.
Bradford, a teacher in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District in Orange County, California, has been writing a living will as she thinks forward to what the school year might bring.
“I don't think I'm alone in trying to be prepared,” she says.
Teachers are more eager than anyone to get back to school because they miss their students, she says. But in case her school reopens with in-person classes, she’s preparing for the worst.
“One of the things on the list of tasks to do going back to school is to figure out a plan of what we will do and how we will help students and other colleagues should a student or a teacher die,” she says.
The Board of Education in Orange County voted to return children to schools without masks and or social distancing requirements, despite a surge in coronavirus cases in the area. Some of the districts within the county have decided against the school board’s recommendations and will hold classes virtually.
Bradford is in a vulnerable position if she returns to in-person teaching — her mother is 79 and her daughter has asthma. Coming home from school every day puts them at risk for coronavirus exposure.
Typically at this point in the summer, teachers are in full preparation mode to get classrooms ready for a new school year. But in her three decades of teaching, this summer has been anything but normal.
“It would certainly be more fun to be focusing on writing lesson plans than planning for what if we die?” she says.
To get back to school safely, she says the federal government will need to step in and help make even basic resources available.
“It's unfortunate that this has become a very political issue, but safe school reopening and equity for our communities requires funding,” she says. “Unless the federal government steps in to help the states with school funding, it's gonna be really hard to go back safely.”
Earlier this week, the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union, authorized its local and state chapters to strike if districts don't take sufficient precautions to keep teachers and students safe.
President Randi Weingarten says striking is a last resort measure, but a powerful tool in order for their demands to be met.
The teachers union is pushing for districts to wait to reopen schools until average daily COVID-19 positive rates stay below 5%.
“That was the number that Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo in New York and Gov. [Gavin] Newsom in California used to make decisions about school opening and school closing,” she says. “And so that's why this threshold becomes very important as an absolute line in the sand.”
The union also wants to make sure that testing, tracing and other safety guardrails are set in stone before reopening in order to prevent transmission — none of which are cheap endeavors.
Congress is having a hard time coming up with a relief bill that they can all agree upon while schools in some parts of the country will open in just a few weeks.
Weingarten says if schools knew by now that funding was coming, they would have purchased the necessary items to reopen. She says in places where there’s no coronavirus surge, funding would need to be between half a trillion dollars to $600 billion for schools to safely reopen.
Politicians “can't talk out of both sides of their mouth and say, ‘we need to do this,’ but then not give us the resources to get it done,” she says.
There’s also an intersectional problem impacting schooling in the U.S. Black and Latinx communities are suffering disproportionately because of the pandemic. Many also live in poor communities that rely heavily on schools for services other than education.
The American Federation of Teachers has teamed up with organizations such as the NAACP, José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen and other not-for-profit food groups to envision a way to use school kitchens to serve food to millions of children in need, she says.
Getting adequate digital equipment to every student who needs it is also a top priority, she says, while also ensuring all teaches are fully equipped to virtually instruct.
These demands would require additional resources and funding from the federal government, she says.
Weingarten remains “really concerned” about the educational disparity gap widening even more as a result of the pandemic.
While many anxiously await further funding from Congress, she says it’s “now up to the teachers to actually rectify all of the mistakes that the Trump administration has done in fighting this virus.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the school district Denise Bradford teaches at. We regret the error.
This article was originally published on July 31, 2020.
This segment aired on July 31, 2020.