PASCO COUNTY, Fla. -- Parents and educators are making tough decisions about back to school. For at least one teacher, it’s led to retirement.
William Adams, 52, set out to make a difference in kids' lives more than 30 years ago, following in the path of his mother who was also an educator.
“Kids always come first. Those of us that are educators, that’s why we chose to get into this profession,” Adams said.
He said he planned to go back to the classroom for his 12th year teaching in Pasco County Schools, indicating he’d be OK with any option with the district. But he said after he submitted his preference, he saw COVID-19 cases climb.
He said he’s diabetic and has several health issues.
“I’m looking at it from a community perspective. And certainly, my decision was made based on my health and it was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in my life because I love this,” Adams said.
He said he made the decision after seeing the state’s reaction to Hillsborough County’s vote to start the first four weeks of classes online.
“It kind of made my decision for me. Because I was already struggling with my own health. Now, they were asking me, I know a lot of people feel in the education system, putting my life on the line and I think some kids who are immuno-compromised are putting their lives on the line by going back to brick and mortar,” he said. “And I understand people have jobs, they need to get back to work. I just don’t think anything’s worth sacrificing human lives.”
The president of United School Employees of Pasco said he’s already heard of a few choosing to retire because of COVID-19 concerns.
“Our organization just recently did a survey and in that survey, we had between 10 and 15 percent of our instruction personnel indicate that may be an option depending on the outcome of either the FEA lawsuit or our own local lawsuit. You know anxiety is very high,” said Don Peace, the organization’s president.
A spokesperson for the school district said they’re still working to fit teachers into their preferred slots, but it’s not always possible and in many cases, they're still working on it. They’re advising teachers if they feel uncomfortable going back into the classroom, they can take leave.
“I have to give the district credit. We prioritized our medically-compromised people into online positions but due to student enrollment, those positions are full and we have just started learning about people being turned away from online positions this year,” Peace said. “So those are the people I think we’re gonna hear about because they’re gonna have to make a decision to either somehow get other accommodations and return to the brick and mortar or take leave or retire.”
In Hillsborough County, at least 109 instructional staff have indicated they will be on leave, retire or resign, but it’s not known their reasoning. The district said 99 percent of their instructional staff indicated they intended to return to work either in brick and mortar or remote learning.
In Pinellas County, the district said since the 2019-2020 school year ended they had 82 retirements/terminations from the Deferred Retirement Option Program, compared to 84 last year. Other retirements accounted for 48, compared to 32 last year. Employees don’t have to say why they chose to retire.
In Sarasota County, the district said there is also no leave designation for COVID-19 concerns. For 2020-2021, it’s had 18 classified resignations and 30 instructional resignations, compared to 2019 to 2020 where it had 46 classified resignations and 28 instructional resignations.
The Florida Education Commissioner was asked about teachers retiring, and any concerns about having enough manpower.
“I will tell you I think right now look at the data, 70 to 80 percent of the parents, more than that for teachers and the students are choosing that face-to-face instruction,” said Commissioner Richard Corcoran. “I just think when you have that amount of people coming and you have more teachers than students coming, as we’ve seen in the opening week. It’s not going to be an issue.”
According to a USF statewide survey, though, 73 percent of respondents indicated they'd support a decision to close public schools. 54 percent indicated they would "strongly support" it.
Adams said he wants parents to know teachers want to work, but he needed to take into account his and his family’s wellbeing.
“We’re in the business of helping kids and unfortunately, some decisions are being made this year by people that are in decision-making positions that are not what’s best for kids,” he said. “They’re not what’s best for employees. One of our sayings in Pasco County used to be, 'Pasco County, we do what’s best for kids.' And I don’t think that’s taking place right now and that breaks my heart.”