With the first day of school looming, thousands of Texas teachers have faced a daunting choice in recent days: return to the classroom while a contagion continues to spread or find another source of income in the midst of an economic recession before they were locked into yearly contracts.
Some teachers have decided to retire and others have decided to quit mid-career, preferring to gamble on their economic health over their physical health. As teachers weigh family, finances, and the sense of obligation that so many feel they have to their students, there are rarely uncomplicated answers during the current crisis.
That sobering reality may explain, in part, why the Houston Independent School District has presented teachers with a not-so-subtle reminder as the school year approaches about the importance of preparing a will. That reminder arrived last week in the form of a webinar on “estate planning.” On Twitter, the district enthusiastically advertised the webinar as a chance to “learn how to create a will, a trust, and much more!”
Estate planning, the tweet added, “can remove many burdens from surviving family members during a stressful time.”
The tweet landed several days after the district put on a financial wellness seminar, but the message still spread rapidly among anxious Houston teachers. The district has offered the same seminar in the past, but for some, the message was deeply troubling, if not offensive, especially at a time when teachers say they’re not being provided ample guidance about how to safely return to classrooms (HISD is scheduled to announce a reopening plan on Wednesday). HISD did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the webinar and its timing. A district website says the hour-long webinar occurred on July 8.
“I think the biggest issue with offering that kind of course was the timing,” explained an HISD teacher who has been working in the district off and on for the past sixteen years and plans to return to the classroom next month. The teacher asked to remain anonymous for fear of being punished by the district. “Everyone,” the teacher added, “is already frustrated and scared.”
Though some teachers blamed the district for the insensitive timing, others argued that the district has been placed in an unfortunate position. During a recent conference call with superintendents, Mike Morath, Texas education commissioner, claimed that state funding for school districts was contingent upon Texas public school districts reopening campuses for an in-person instruction in August, according to the Houston Chronicle.
The district, which is home to nearly 12,000 teachers, is in a coronavirus hot spot, an embattled region with more than 49,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and a hospital network that has already breached capacity. Nearly one third of the nation’s teachers are fifty years or older, according to federal data. Education Week has already compiled a national list of more than 300 educators of all ages who have died during the pandemic, including many teachers in their thirties and some even younger. Teachers aren’t the only district employees who remain at risk. One union leader told KHOU that 80 percent of Houston school bus drivers are seniors with health issues. Teachers are scheduled to report to work on August 10, and students are expected to arrive fourteen days later, according to an HISD calendar.
“I don’t see how we can open schools systems right now in the middle of a raging COVID-19 epidemic,” Peter Hotez, codirector of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, said in an interview he tweeted Monday. “Right now I do not see a path.”
Though some teachers were disturbed by the HISD’s emphasis on estate planning, Zeph Capo—a public school science teacher and the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers—had a different reaction than many of his fellow instructors who, he said, feel like they’re being sacrificed for the economy. Over the summer, Capo said, the district lost two employees to COVID-19. Both of the employees, who were working in maintenance jobs on school property, lost their lives at a time when schools were devoid of children.
Imagine, he said, how many more educators and students might be at risk when the buildings are full.
“I actually thought offering teachers guidance on how to prepare a will was the humane thing for the district to do,” Capo said. “The district was going the extra step to help people get prepared for serious problems. This is the reality that we’re facing.”