Teachers are writing their wills before returning to school amid pandemic: 'This is a life-or-death thing'

Teachers apprehensive about returning to school amid the coronavirus pandemic are exploring their end-of-life options to protect their loved ones as COVID-19 infections and deaths continue to climb across the U.S.

Although more than 97,000 U.S. children tested positive for COVID-19 in the second half of July, states and districts are forging ahead with individual fall school plans. Some, such as districts in Mississippi and Indiana, have already hit roadblocks as positive cases triggered quarantine protocol. And in Georgia, where viral photos of maskless students swarming hallways at one school led to a teen’s temporary suspension, over 800 students and staff quarantined after about 40 positive COVID-19 cases were reported in another district.

“While educators are worried about the social, emotional and academic development of children, we are also worried about death, which is why teachers are writing their wills,” Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, a teacher’s union, tells Yahoo Life. “We know this is a life-or-death thing.” Lately, the organization has received calls and emails from teachers seeking end-of-life guidance, and one fourth-grade teacher in Washington remarked in an NEA newsletter that neglecting to organize her legal affairs would be “irresponsible.”

The health risks of in-person learning aren’t defensible, says Kathryn Vaughn, 40, who teaches visual arts to elementary students at Tipton County Schools in Covington, Tennessee, where 1,217 confirmed and probable cases have been reported countywide, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Her school district opens August 17 with a hybrid model, in which students participate in both in-person and virtual learning. Vaughn, who is searching for an affordable attorney to help write her will, works nights managing a car wash, in part to afford the legal fees.

It’s an essential investment for Vaughn, whose income is steadier than that of her husband, a combat veteran and fine art photographer. “If something happens to me, I want him to be protected,” she says. “...Our jobs are changing in ways we never anticipated.”

The district is doing the best it can, she says, given that many students rely on the school nurse for primary care services and don’t have home internet access. “I had a better online connection riding on the back of a camel on a trip to the Sahara Desert than I do in my community.”

Vaughn, who is currently on campus for cleaning and training, purchased face shields and a lab coat to wear in the classroom. “I’m going to be suited up like it’s an infectious-disease zone,” she says. “I’m not an anxious person and I’ve done crazy things in my life. But this is different.”

John Combs, the superintendent of Tipton County Schools, tells Yahoo Life, “We are following safety guidelines as outlined by the State Health Department, LeBonheur (nursing services), and the (University of) Tennessee Health Science Center. We have also issued a mask requirement for both students and staff unless the opportunity for social distancing exists. Buildings have been sprayed with a product called PermaShield, and hand sanitizing stations will be in place throughout the buildings as well.”

When asked by Yahoo Life about the fact that a member of his faculty was creating a will in anticipation of her return to the classroom, Combs said, “being prepared has always been a novel concept for many — even prior to COVID-19.”

Denise Bradford, a kindergarten teacher in Montevideo Elementary School in Mission Viejo, Calif., updated her will over the summer as infections in Orange County, Calif., climbed to more than 40,000 as of Monday, according to the California Department of Public Health. On Aug. 17, students in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, where she teaches, will start the year virtually.

“As a local leader, teachers have called me to ask about their wills,” Bradford, the president of the Saddleback Valley Educators Association, tells Yahoo Life. Her affairs were in order before the pandemic; however, she recently updated her will and trust for her three grown daughters. “People are scared — a lot of teachers care for their parents or have babies at home.”

Representatives from Saddleback Valley school district did not immediately respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment. In a 20-page document outlining its school year opening and safety plan, school superintendent Crystal Turner says the district’s plan is “aimed to mitigate, not eliminate, risk” and acknowledges that “no single action or set of actions will completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19 transmission.”

Some teachers have health conditions that put them at greater risk amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Terri Crothers, who teaches art at Gallia Academy Middle School in the Gallipolis City School District in Gallipolis, Ohio, is at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19. With her diabetic condition in mind, Crothers hired an estate planner to name her 19-year-old daughter a beneficiary before in-person and virtual instruction begins on August 31.

“At 57, I am toward the end of my career but in the middle of my life,” Crothers tells Yahoo Life. “If I wind up disabled and can’t work, that will affect [everybody.]”

Gallia County, Ohio, where her school district is located, has 74 positive cases as of Wednesday, per the Ohio Department of Health.

The single mom also penned farewell letters to her daughter, parents, and nieces and nephews, to be distributed by her lawyer, in the event of her death. “I told them how grateful I am for the life we’ve shared and that I’m sorry to miss college graduations and weddings,” she says.

Neither a spokesperson from the Gallia Academy Middle School nor a Gallipolis City School District spokesperson returned Yahoo Life’s requests for comment.

While online platform LegalWills and law firms in Florida and Wisconsin have offered free estate planning services for school staff, there is no national guidance on the topic. “The Department of Education has not and would not make such a recommendation,” a DOE spokesperson tells Yahoo Life. “The science shows that returning to school can be done safely, and the CDC has released guidelines to help schools do just that. No one is advocating for teachers to be unsafe. The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics agree that a safe return to school is not just possible, but necessary, for our students’ well-being. The department has made available $13 billion in new federal funding to support safety.”

Crothers hopes that the face masks, portable UV sterilizer and clear shower curtain to encase her desk, will keep her classroom safe. “I will put on the bravest face,” she tells Yahoo Life, “so my kids don’t know I’m scared.”

Learn about the latest coronavirus news and updates on Yahoo Life. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO resource guides.

Read more from Yahoo Life:

Want daily lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your in-box? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.