Heidi Hisrich, a 42-year-old teacher at Richmond High School in Richmond, Indiana, said she quit her "dream job" because teachers and students were expected to resume in-person classes in the fall, despite the ongoing threat of COVID-19. She's hardly alone: A recent Gallup poll found that 57% of U.S. teachers fear being exposed to the coronavirus. Hisrich spoke to CBS MoneyWatch about her difficult decision to quit what she calls "the best job in the school." This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It also includes a response and update from the local school district at the bottom of the story.
CBS MoneyWatch: You made what sounds like a painful choice this month — to quit your job as a teacher. What led to you to walk away?
Heidi Hisrich: I considered my job to be my absolute dream job; there was no job I wanted more than the job I had. I got to teach biomedical lab science, which is a sequence of hands-on college-level biomedical courses, to students I would have for all four years of high school. I felt like I had the best job in the school. I just loved it. I couldn't have imagined leaving this job, even a couple of months ago. I am leaving the classroom I've been in for 13 years at the school that I expected I would stay at until I retired. I thought I would be there another 15 to 20 years.
So what happened?
Ultimately, given the plan my district came up with for going back to school, I don't have any confidence the staff will be safe and the kids will be safe. Because of that, I decided to resign.
What was your school district's plan for reopening?
The plan when I resigned on July 18 was that we would continue to run a full schedule at the high school at full capacity. Some students would opt out to do online education, but the district was definitely prioritizing in-person [lessons], and kids could opt out. That meant I would be seeing as many as 150 different students a day by being in the classroom for 50 minutes at a time.
What were your main concerns in returning to school?
It wasn't clear either whether masks would be worn consistently and whether personal protective equipment would be provided to teachers. They couldn't tell us what the plan was if a student tested positive or if a teacher tested positive. They couldn't tell us what we would do — how classes would be covered — if a teacher wasn't there because we already lacked subs in the district. They just couldn't answer questions, and I lost confidence in their ability to do this.
How did the school district react to your resignation?
I got the email from my principal on Saturday, July 18, saying this was the plan, and I resigned the same day. On Monday, July 20, a school board member who knew I had resigned reached out saying they were switching to a hybrid schedule that had been approved at a school board meeting that took place after I had resigned. The new plan splits students into two groups that come in every other day.
Does that make you more comfortable? Are you reconsidering your resignation?
No, the plan still doesn't seem safe to me. They are also requiring teachers to teach one section of students in person while simultaneously teaching another section of students at home.
I don't know how to teach one group of students in person while teaching another group of students at a distance at the same time. They are expecting staff to do both things simultaneously, while also enforcing safety and sanitization measures. How is that possible?
Have other teachers in your school district resigned over COVID-19 concerns? They have good reason to be worried: One-in-four teachers have a condition that puts them at higher risk of serious illness from coronavirus, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
I've heard from a lot of teachers in my district who have said that they are wrestling with the same decision. So many people have reached out to me saying they are struggling to sleep at night and praying their school will go virtual. They are waiting until the very last minute to see if maybe it will go virtual and if it doesn't, I think the district will see a lot of last-minute resignations because they are operating on that hope.
Quitting your job is clearly a professional and financial risk. Are you concerned about that?
I resigned not knowing exactly what I would do next. I had a conversation with my husband about whether we could afford it if I didn't have a job right away. We decided we could cut our budget, but that it would be better if I could find a job I could do while still saying safe.
How's the job hunt going?
I've been offered two jobs so far and just accepted one at a school in Arkansas, where they also have all four years of the national biomedical science program that I teach.
This school in Camden, Arkansas, lost its teacher, so they reached out to me to see if I would teach these kids in Arkansas — all four courses remotely, from my back porch. It feels like it's a little bit meant to be, in a way.
Reporter's note: Richmond Community Schools said in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch that class sizes for teachers could not be determined until parents indicated whether their children would return to physical classrooms. The plan at the time of Hisrich's resignation was also considered "fluid," and subject to change based on the rate of coronavirus cases and guidance from local health officials.
The school district also told CBS MoneyWatch that some decisions, such as wearing face coverings and the availability of PPE, are not entirely within its control. But "it has never wavered in its commitment" to make PPE available to its staff, the school district said in a statement.
On July 22, after Hisrich's resignation, Richmond Community Schools released a revised plan for the 2020-21 school year that will include both in-person and remote learning, with students divided into two groups that alternate between in-person and virtual instruction for the first six weeks of the fall semester.
The plan also states that, when social distancing isn't possible, masks must be worn, including on buses, and when entering and exiting the school building. School officials could also opt to shut a classroom or even an entire school if someone in the district tested positive for the coronavirus.