With COVID-19 case counts climbing in the U.S. and many schools set to resume instruction in as little as two weeks, some teachers are adding a new item to their back-to-school to-do lists: drafting a will.
Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, told VICE in an interview that teachers have been calling to ask if the union can provide them with legal assistance. “‘Panicked’ is not too strong a word to describe what they’re feeling,” Eskelsen García said. “They are panicked and calling to ask ‘Does the NEA have any advice to put in place a will? Do you have any last will and testament forms? Because I don’t trust my governor, and I think I’m being sacrificed.’”
In an interview with CNN on July 12, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos repeated the message that schools must open, but didn’t provide an explanation of how they could do so safely. Congress has yet to pass a bill for the emergency funding that schools need to purchase safety equipment and hire additional staff; in his July 23 press conference, Trump indicated that he would urge the Senate to direct $105 billion for schools, but only if they reopen for in-person classes.
The National Education Association reported in its newsletter (which, full disclosure, I received as a part-time teacher in a California district that will be in distance-learning mode this fall) that teachers in states like Florida, Washington, and Texas are planning their wills and stockpiling PPE. The Houston Independent School District set off alarm bells among educators when its benefits department Tweeted a back-to-school reminder that teachers could sign up for a webinar on estate planning and living wills.
An early draft of Utah’s Canyons School District’s reopening plans that went viral included a checklist item for administrators to prepare a template letter notifying the community of a student or staff death. Eskelsen García said other districts have taken similar steps to draw up plans for communicating COVID-19 cases and deaths. While the district removed the item from later drafts, and although such form letters are considered normal in the world of crisis communications, some teachers were left rattled.
Kathryn Vaughn is one of those teachers. “I never thought that living in a red state would be a death sentence,” she said, “but I feel that way now.” Vaughn teaches art to 800 elementary school students at a Title 1 school in a rural district in Tennessee where COVID-19 cases are on the rise. On August 3, 150 district teachers will gather in a school cafeteria for training. On August 17, students will return to school full-time. Masks will be optional for both students and teachers. “This is a place where many people believe the virus is a hoax or overblown,” Vaughn said. “I have faced a lot of negativity in my community [for voicing concerns] and been told I’m weak and not a good Christian, that if I covered myself and my students in prayer, I would be fine.”
Vaughn’s school has taken some steps beyond prayer to prepare for holding classes in a pandemic. The district has purchased masks, touchless thermometers, and sanitizing fogging machines; limited the types of activities students may do in P.E.; and moved music instruction outdoors. Still, Vaughn, who has asthma, is not reassured. She said that while she considers herself brave and devoted to her students, “going to school in a pandemic with an invisible disease you can bring home to your family is another level of anxiety [that is] is almost crippling.”
Vaughn has purchased her own PPE and sourced tips from doctors about how to improve her getup (one suggested covering her hair so droplets can’t hide in it). She is setting up a decontamination station in her yard where she can disrobe and head directly to the shower when she gets home. And, she said, “I have set aside a folder with important documents for my husband.” She plans to write a will.
Based on conversations she has had with her colleagues, she believes other teachers in her district are doing the same. And in her weekly Zoom meeting with a mutual support group of teachers from around the U.S. and Canada, teachers have been exchanging tips and advice for getting the process started. “I told my husband he should start taking videos of me for when I’m gone,” Vaughn said.
In Ohio, a 30-year-old high school English teacher who works at a private school, and asked to not be named out of fear of repercussions, has been getting tips from her siblings, who are first-responders, about staying safe in a classroom with 28 students. She also drew up a will in anticipation of being called back to teach class.
“Going into a potentially dangerous work environment pushed me to do it so that I can make sure my son is provided for if something happens to me,” she wrote in an email to VICE. “It was probably the hardest conversation I've ever had with my parents because I listed them as guardians for my son. I've also written a letter to my family as a final goodbye in case anything happens. I never thought I'd have to do something like that at my age, but I'd rather have my affairs in order than be stuck in the hospital wondering if they knew what I wanted done.”
“Teachers heard the president say, ‘Don’t worry about the kids, open the schools, the kids will be fine.’ He didn’t say their teachers would be fine. He couldn’t. [Teachers] got the message: You are expendable,” Eskelsen García said. In the newest version of the CDC’s school guidelines, the risk to school staff is not addressed. Instead, the document focuses on the critical importance of opening schools and highlights research suggesting that the risk to children is low. Language from a previous version of the guidelines (which Trump called “very tough & expensive”) stating that virtual learning would be the lowest risk of all possible options and that required 6 feet of distancing between students was removed.
“We are so amazingly disturbed by the lack of a plan on a national level,” said Eskelsen García, who noted that in countries such as Denmark where schools have reopened successfully, the schools worked with and took guidance from government and public health officials, and that those countries had gotten the virus under control first. She still believes it is possible to create plans for safe reopenings in localities that have controlled the transmission of coronavirus if those plans include input from public health experts and educators. “People are making out their wills [in places] where it is a politician making edicts. That’s where we are putting people at risk.”
In Yakima County, Washington, which is currently getting hit particularly hard, fourth-grade teacher Shaela Rieker has enrolled her children in their district’s distance learning program out of concern for their safety as she awaits news from her district about whether she will be required to return in person. “It feels like an experiment, because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Rieker, who is immunocompromised. She knows some colleagues will be taking a leave of absence, but as her family’s breadwinner, that is not an option, so she is doing what she can to eke out a sense of certainty.
“Before I step into a classroom, I will have a will in place,” she said. I asked what other steps she would take to protect herself before returning. “Well,” she said, “I currently have life insurance” —but because her husband is a stay-at-home parent, she worries the money would not be sufficient for him to raise their two kids if she dies. With that in mind, she is adding one more to-do item onto her list that includes adapting lesson plans and purchasing PPE: increasing the policy on her life insurance.
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