The Journal Gazette
Sunday, September 13, 2020 1:00 am

Virus spurs teacher exits

Some quit, calling risk too great, protections too little

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

Science teachers Bill and Amy Hollenberg didn't plan to break up with Fort Wayne Community Schools this soon.

The well-respected Northrop High School educators planned to return to their classrooms for a final year this fall, but the coronavirus pandemic sparked health and other concerns, prompting them to retire two weeks before classes began.

“We didn't want to compromise our quality or quantity of whatever time we've got left,” said Amy Hollenberg, 58, whose 16 years as a teacher was a second career.

The Hollenbergs illustrate the dilemma teachers nationwide faced this summer as COVID-19 cases climbed and schools developed reopening plans.

A spring USA Today/Ipsos poll of about 500 K-12 educators found 20% of teachers were unlikely to return to school if classrooms reopened in fall. About that time, an EdWeek Research Center survey of almost 2,000 educators nationwide found 20% were somewhat or very likely to leave the classroom at the end of the 2019-20 academic year compared with 9% who felt that way before the pandemic. Last month, the National Education Association reported its nationwide poll of educators found 28% were more likely to retire early or leave the profession because of COVID-19.

Locally, the Fort Wayne Education Association in August asked teachers whether they were considering not returning to their position because of health concerns. About 29% of 2,040 respondents said yes. A link to the informal, Google form survey was on the union's website and promoted on social media. Most participants identified themselves as FWCS educators.

Some teachers left months earlier because of the pandemic, union President Sandra Vohs said.

“Several teachers who had been considering retirement last spring went ahead and retired at the end of the school year last year because COVID-19 was the tipping point that finalized their decision,” Vohs said.

FWEA has about 1,140 members, Vohs said, noting it is in a membership window and she will get updated rosters in a few weeks.

Retirement notices typically begin arriving in February, trickling in through the end of the school year. More usually come in the summer, and an increase in August is common, FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.

The few who identified COVID-19 as a reason for retirement submitted their notices during the summer, Stockman said. She noted the retirements were in line with previous years. 

“We prefer if teachers let us know as early as possible when they are going to retire,” she said, adding that makes it easier to plan and recruit. “It is normal, however, that we are hiring right up to the start of the year and then into the school year. For us, recruitment and hiring is year-round.”

FWCS has about 1,800 teachers. The 23 teacher departures the FWCS board approved Aug. 10 – three days before the academic year began – included the Hollenbergs' July 30 retirements and two COVID-related resignations including Erika Pischak's.

“Germs definitely played a big part in the decision this year,” said Pischak, 28, who has an infant daughter to consider.

Pischak planned to return to Holland Elementary School at least part-time after giving birth in April, she said, but that changed as the coronavirus threat worsened.

Pischak didn't want to risk exposing her baby to COVID-19 at day care and knew she risked catching the novel coronavirus at work. As a speech language pathologist, she helped students with moderate to severe disabilities communicate – a task Pischak said involved “a lot of hand-over-hand contact” in teaching them how to use communication devices.

“It didn't feel safe enough,” Pischak said. Assurances that there would be face masks and face shields didn't sway her. “I just felt more comfortable not going this year.”

For Melanie Holmes, resigning from Irwin Elementary School and home schooling her special needs daughter was the best solution for this unprecedented year.

Her daughter, who attended FWCS, turns 9 next month but Holmes said she mentally is at the level of a 3-year-old. The girl – a hugger – would struggle with social distancing guidelines, mask requirements and any school schedule changes COVID-19 might cause, said Holmes, 39.

Holmes didn't know how she could home-school her daughter while teaching full time, especially with remote students added to the mix, she said.

“It came down to structure for her and workload management for me,” said Holmes, who found a full-time job with the city of Fort Wayne that better fits with her family's needs. “It kind of forced my hand to put her first.”

FWCS Superintendent Mark Daniel has acknowledged the strain teachers are under this year as they work under new guidelines and learning models, including a blended learning option at the middle and high schools.

Daniel unveiled the Return to Learn plan mid-July. The Hollenbergs described it as lacking.

“We kept waiting and waiting, and then we saw the plan, and it didn't feel well formed,” said Bill Hollenberg, 60, who taught 34 years.

It was unclear how they would teach the students in the classroom and those at home, especially a subject like science, the couple said. They also knew from last spring's abrupt switch to remote learning that grading online assignments and converting lessons to an online format is time consuming.

“Things were rushing up, and (we) decided, 'We don't think we can do this,'” Bill Hollenberg said.

He might have decided differently had the district further delayed the start of school.

“Had they done that,” he said, “I would have thought more strongly about teaching this year.”

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