Some Florida teachers consider retirement as schools move closer to reopening

TALLAHASSEE — Dave Galloway, an army veteran and sixth grade science teacher in Jackson County, is used to assessing risk in his life. 

When COVID-19 swept over Florida this spring, the 64-year-old refrained from going to church and restaurants. He ordered groceries online. And he made sure to wear a face mask and carry hand sanitizer every time he left the house.

Then came the notice that Jackson County schools would resume in-person instruction without a requirement for staff and students to use face masks on campus at all times. The announcement prompted Galloway to consider seriously an early retirement.

“For the first time in a very long time, I am feeling stressed. It is just a lot for me to process because I am being asked to do something that the science and the data are telling me there is an untenable amount of risk involved,” Galloway said in an interview Tuesday.

Galloway is one of many teachers who feel that the reopening of schools amid the pandemic is forcing them to choose between their livelihood and their health, as Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran push school districts to offer in-person instruction to students in August. 

As schools begin to reopen, surveys show that teachers across the state are deciding to resign, retire early or take a leave of absence rather than return to campus this month.

In a July survey, 52 educators in Pasco County, or roughly 1 percent of respondents, said that they would either resign or take a leave of absence if asked to come back, according to school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

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Fourteen Pinellas County school employees resigned before the start of the school year and 47 have requested a leave of absence, Associate Superintendent of Human Resource Services Paula Texel said at a school board meeting Tuesday. 

In rural Jackson County, eight teachers have said they would take a leave of absence, two said they would resign and two others said they would retire early, said Galloway, who serves as the president of the Jackson County Education Association. The vast majority of teachers, however, are coming back to school, Superintendent Larry Moore said in an interview Tuesday.

A mid-July survey conducted by the Florida Education Association found that 18,082 educators said the pandemic has “made them more likely to retire or leave education earlier than planned.” But it is unclear how many of them have acted on that sentiment.  

The FEA, the state’s largest teachers union, conducted the survey prior to filing a lawsuit challenging a July 6 emergency order issued by Corcoran that requires schools to reopen in August, unless state and local health officials say otherwise. 

Lawyers representing DeSantis and Corcoran have asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the order doesn’t require school districts to remain shuttered. But the FEA’s lawyers argue that schools risk losing funding if they don’t comply with the mandate. Teachers “have rushed resignations and retirements, even with retirement penalties” to avoid returning to campus in August, the union’s lawyers wrote in a response to the state’s motion to dismiss the case. A Tallahassee judge is slated to hold a hearing in the case Thursday morning.

DeSantis has been adamant that all school districts should offer in-person instruction in August, while also maintaining that district employees and teachers should not be forced to return to school if they are uncomfortable about the virus.

But local schools officials say they are trying to balance teachers’ requests to teach online or work remotely with students’ demands for in-person instruction.

More than 1,500 school employees in Pinellas County have requested an alternative work assignment, Texel told the school board. The vast majority of the requests — 1,115 — came from workers who say they are uncomfortable going back to work, but priority is given to employees with underlying medical conditions or who are age 65 and older, she added.

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