I'm a teacher in Florida and a caregiver to my 84-year-old father. My school district is making me choose between going back to work during the pandemic or losing my livelihood.

insider@insider.com (Tracey Hicks)
·8 mins read
Tracey Hicks says she's been forced to decide between risking her life at work or not being able to support her family. <p class="copyright">Tracey Hicks</p>
Tracey Hicks says she's been forced to decide between risking her life at work or not being able to support her family.
  • Tracey Hicks is in her mid-50s and has been a high school digital video technology teacher in Florida's Palm Coast for almost 10 years.

  • Her school district is requiring teachers to be back at work on August 12, before students return on August 24. 

  • There's no mask mandate at the school, and no real plan for if clusters of students get sick with COVID-19.

  • Families have three options for how they send students back to school — but none of those takes the safety of Hicks or her fellow teachers into account, she writes.

  • "I'm a Black woman, part of a population already disproportionately impacted by the virus, and my healthcare depends on the job that I have now," Hicks writes.

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The district where I have worked for almost 10 years has put me in a situation that I'm saddened about. Florida's Flagler County, located about 20 minutes north of Daytona Beach and 20 minutes south of Saint Augustine, wants teachers to return to school August 12, before the start date for students on August 24. 

This is despite the fact that there are nearly 1,095 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Flagler County, steadily rising, and 13 deaths as of August 10. Florida has reached 8,553 deaths, with 542,792 total cases, as of Aug 11. That's more cases than the entire countries of Italy (251,237), France (239,355), and Spain (326,612) as of August 11, according to John Hopkins University and Medicine's Coronavirus Resource Center.

In a week we will be opening the schools here in Flagler County, in what I deem to be the story of present-day America: the tension between right and left politics, between economy and wellbeing, between life and death.

Our union, the Florida Educators' Association, is suing the state for opening back up early

For our students coming back to school, there are three options: Face-to-face, where students go into the classroom; online, where some students can stay online, while others come into the classroom (blended learning); or fully online, where students do all of their instruction online, following their normal school-day schedule. As of today, we've been advised that we will now do blended learning, with some students in the classroom and some virtual. These two processes will be done at the same time, which presents a huge challenge for teachers. 

And none of these options consider me, the teacher, who still must come to work every day, at risk of catching the virus, to instruct the students who are doing in-person learning. 

It doesn't consider the amount of planning and scheduling that will be needed to do the online learning options to ensure that students still meet Florida State Education guidelines and still have a chance of student success and getting into good colleges.  

There's no mask mandate in the school — though it's suggested to wear one — or plans for what happens when classrooms become coronavirus clusters. 

I find myself wondering how students will be able to do two weeks' worth of work if they have to stay home sick, or if teacher's will get more sick time if they also get infected. What happens if there are siblings that attend the elementary, or the middle, or the high school and one gets infected? What happens if we all get infected?

Parents with money and means can pull their students out; teachers with other options can leave the profession. But I'm a Black woman, part of a population already disproportionately impacted by the virus, and my healthcare depends on the job that I have now. 

Flagler County didn't think much about the impact reopening schools would have on teachers

I can tell, because it decided to slash our teacher preparation days. Normally spread throughout the school year, they will now be condensed in that first week the teachers return to school before the students. 

These were the days we used to grade papers, input grades for the report cards, and plan school scheduling for the next quarter/semester. Already, this decision tells me that there isn't much to plan for this semester; we're just going to wing it. 

Perhaps what sums the whole situation up is what happened at the end of July, when there was a Flagler County board meeting to revise the school calendar for reopening. 

Before the meeting — which I watched online — began, the school district attorney read letters from our local community about the reopening of school for about 20 minutes. Parents clearly expressed their dismay and discontent with the risk of sending their children back to school. Not one of the district or school board leaders made a comment as the letters were read. 

In a later discussion in the meeting, one school board member mentioned demonstrably false things like, "You don't need masks; there is a cure," and went on to say that having the rate of cases going up was a good thing because it means we're "developing herd immunity." 

And as much as I want to blame the leaders in my county, I also must look to whom I believe they are trying to please — Florida's governor, Ron DeSantis, and the person he's trying to cater to: Donald Trump. 

It's not lost on me that Flagler County is a Republican county, and in the last election,  over half the population voted for Donald Trump. As I drive around every day, Trump signs fly proud and high in the air — support for the same  Trump who has said that the coronavirus was similar to a flu, which it's not; that the US cases are going down significantly, which they're not; the vaccine is coming soon, which it's not; and that the virus will go away, which it isn't. 

The desire to please Trump and the desire to please DeSantis, I believe, underlies the schooling situation in Flagler County. Although the numbers keep rising in the state of Florida, DeSantis will not mandate statewide requirements to wear masks. 

But DeSantis, like Trump, and like many Flagler County commissioners, doesn't have to enter the classroom. Because they are able to get daily testing, they are very far removed from the common person who has to be in the forefront to keep a job. 

Underlying all of this is the risk of teachers bringing this home to their partners, their other children, even their parents; whomever they live with. 

Sure, the pandemic might disrupt a child's learning, but so does having a parent die from the disease.  

I'm a caregiver to my 84-year-old father. He is immunocompromised because he had a kidney transplant 12 years ago. I am in my mid-50s, which means I'm at a higher risk — and now I have to decide whether to go to work or leave a job I actually like and not be able to support my family. 

There was an option for teachers to stay at home until the end of December, but we'd only receive 66% of our paychecks; with such a reduction, I wouldn't be able to afford my health insurance. I'm also getting my doctorate in education now, and have to continue paying off my student loans. 

In my county, the administrators making these decisions do not have to deal with students on a daily basis — they don't give tissues when they sneeze, or write nurse passes when they have headaches; they don't break up the fights that sometimes happen in the hallways. My school has about 2,600 students — only 1,800 of whom are scheduled for face-to-face learning. How will the classrooms even be cleaned after every class, when there are often only four or five minutes in between? 

I can't help but think that even the NBA, MLB, and NFL, for whom some of the richest people in country work for, are having trouble keeping their millionaires safe. What then, is left for the middle or lower classes? The poor, the Blacks, and the Latinos, who are already so disenfranchised in this country? 

Perhaps my administrators don't know that going to school is not like quickly going into Walmart or Home Depot — students are in school for over seven hours a day. 

One study found that up to 40% of infected people could be asymptomatic coronavirus carriers of COVID-19. Considering how much we still don't know about this illness, I imagine us middle-to-lower class folks will be the guinea pigs for the rich people to find out more. 

It's also quite offensive that these leaders believe my life is worth the measly salary I'm paid. In Florida, the average teachers' salary is $47,717 to $63,100, which is lower than the national average. The decision to reopen schools tells me that this salary is all my life is worth — not much. 

Some parents have to send their students back to school because of the lack of options in child care. Some people like myself, can't afford to just let go of a paycheck. We also can't afford incompetence. And perhaps this means that some of us will have no choice but to die. 

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