A looming issue for schools: Teachers with health worries who can’t or won’t go back

Belinda Mckinney-Childrey has spent more than 30 years as a teacher. Before the pandemic, she thought she was about three years from retirement.

Coronavirus has her wondering whether to fast-track that decision. She has high blood pressure, a health condition that could put her at a higher risk for severe illness if she were to contract the coronavirus. A few weeks shy of her 62nd birthday, she’s close to the age group that the federal government has also warned is at higher risk.

And she wonders if social distancing could really work in her class when school buildings eventually reopen. She teaches sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students with autism and intellectual disabilities in Chicago, a job where close contact with students is just the daily reality. She’s willing to keep teaching remotely, but without a vaccine, she’s not sure it would be safe to step foot in her school.

“It’s very scary right now,” she said. “I can’t chance my health to go back. I love my job, I love what I do, but when push comes to shove, I think the majority of us will be like ‘I think we’re going to retire.’”


Belinda Mckinney-Childrey pictured outside her classroom at Wentworth Elementary in Chicago.  Photo courtesy Belinda Mckinney-Childrey

Across the country, teachers who are older or medically vulnerable — or who are afraid of putting a family member at risk — are beginning to weigh those risks. Though schools in most places have closed their doors for the school year, the federal government, states, and cities are all beginning to outline conditions for reopening school buildings. Meanwhile, testing is lagging, and there is new evidence to suggest children can transmit the virus.

That leaves school districts to grapple with a big problem on the horizon: what to do if buildings are open, but many teachers and staffers don’t feel safe coming in.

“What is super complicated is this question of, who decides if it’s safe for these teachers to come back?” said John Bailey, who co-authored a new report for the American Enterprise Institute about the challenges the coronavirus presents for staffing schools. “What happens if a school says we believe it’s safe and a teacher believes it’s not? How does that get arbitrated and resolved? I don’t think there’s clear systems and processes there yet.”

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