State of our Schools: Return or Retire?

The start of a historic and controversial school year is approaching, and parents can send their kids back or have them learn from home the entire time, but not all teachers have the option to work from home in this pandemic.

News 12 Staff

Sep 2, 2020, 5:29 PM

Updated 1,361 days ago

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The start of a historic and controversial school year is approaching, and parents can send their kids back or have them learn from home the entire time, but not all teachers have the option to work from home in this pandemic.
After about 70 New York City teachers and paraprofessionals died from COVID-19, many are scared to return, and some are even retiring.
Any other school year, teachers would be excited to return to the classroom, but this year they're questioning their career.
"To think about walking away, I am just starting, I can't but I also don't want to risk my life to go back and risk exposing my family to go back," says Anthony Chin Kee Hee, a Bronx Latin High School teacher.
Elayna Wilson decided to retire on Aug. 1 rather than risk her or her husband's lives with COVID-19. She is 56 years old and has an autoimmune disease. The first-grade teacher of 26 years has taught many children how to read, most recently at P.S. 95 in Gravesend, Brooklyn. However,  Wilson doesn't find the city's plan of blending in-person and remote learning very reassuring.
"Honestly, I don't see how it's going to work. With little ones, you can't so easily socially distance them, keep them six feet apart. I don't feel safe going back to schools," says Wilson.
Mayor Bill de Blasio says school buildings will close if the citywide infection rate hits 3%. It's been consistently below that now for months.
Parents can choose full time remote learning for their child at any time for any reason under this plan.
The mayor announced on Aug. 24 that schools will have the option of utilizing outdoor space like parks and streets to minimize risk.
The city says its plan is built on thorough disinfecting, protective equipment, limiting contact by keeping students in a single classroom together throughout the day and testing.
Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teacher's Union, reached an agreement with the mayor after accusing the city's plan of having holes in it.
On Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio announced in-person learning would be delayed until Sept. 21 to give teachers more time to prepare.
"We now can say that NYC Public Schools has the most aggressive policies and greatest safeguards than any other school in America," says Mayor de Blasio.
Despite this, Mulgrew has admitted retirement numbers are something to watch.
"We are preparing in case we see an influx in teachers all of sudden retiring," says Mulgrew.
Debra Penny oversees the UFT'S pension department.  
"We have over 5,000 members over the age of 55 who can retire tomorrow, that's pretty huge," says Penny.
That could potentially exacerbate what the union says is an already significant staffing shortage.
"A real class can only average between 10-12 students when before we were between 28-34. So now we need 2.5 teachers for every one teacher. The mayor acts like it's not a problem," says Penny.
The union says in a typical year, between 2,700 and 3,300 of their members retire and a similar number resign.
Penny says if a teacher is not yet 55 but is vested, they can resign but must wait until they turn that age to collect their pension.
The union says July 1 is the biggest day for teacher retirements, but interestingly enough this year they saw a 27% decrease on that day compared to last year. Penny believes many teachers are seeing what happens before making a final decision.
"They really wanna be there with the children, but they don't want to die, and they don't want to put their families in harm's way," says Penny.
State numbers, however, are showing an uptick. The New York State Teachers' Retirement System, which manages the pensions for public school teachers except for those who work for the city, says there have been 388 more retirements throughout July and August of this year compared to last.
University Heights High School social studies teacher Jenny Quirindongo worries about coming home to her mother who takes care of her 15-month-old when she's at work.
"I would be mortified If I brought something home and got her sick," says Quirindongo.
Steve Swieciki, a teacher at Lehman High School, says he is skeptical of the cleaning plans.
"Our student and staff bathrooms frequently don't have soap or paper towels or even toilet paper," says Swieckiki.  
Bay Ridge, Brooklyn's P.S. 30 teacher Ricardo Colon worries about the inequities.
"Thinking as a parent, I want the best for my kids but I also can't neglect to realize that there will be schools out there that won't have the same opportunity to be safe and that's been on the forefront of my mind when thinking of going back," says Colon.


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