Back-to-school is looking a little different for many teachers nationwide this year, as they grapple with returning to their classrooms amid a pandemic.
Added to their list of concerns: Death.
“How horrible is it that one of the things on the list to do is to have a plan for students and teachers dying?” Denise Bradford, a teacher in Orange County, California’s Saddleback Valley Unified School District, told CNN.
Her comment comes after the Orange County Board of Education voted this week to return children to schools without face masks or social distancing, despite a surge in coronavirus cases and more than 7,000 Covid-19 deaths in the state.
Bradford is not alone: Many teachers CNN spoke with, some who requested they not be named due to fears of repercussions from their school districts, said they are preparing for the worst this fall. (CNN has agreed to use pseudonyms for some of the teachers to protect their identities).
Decisions about whether schools will reopen, and in what capacity, have mostly been left to school districts, with some guidance from state officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
President Donald Trump, while pushing for schools to open, has complained the guidelines are “very tough and expensive.” Education Secretary Besty DeVos has refused to say whether districts should follow them, and in a recent CNN interview, made it clear the administration has no plan for a safe reopening, leaving it up to states or districts.
All of the interviewed teachers shared a similar sentiment: They miss their students and in person teaching, but they worry about their health should they return to classrooms amid the pandemic.
“We miss our kids terribly,” Bradford told CNN’s Brianna Keilar. “We lay awake at night wondering if they’re okay.”
Preparing their wills
Louise, a special education teacher in another state where Covid-19 is surging, told CNN she is preparing a will and a living will. She is also looking into supplementary life insurance as she gets ready to go back into the classroom next month.
“It’s probably time that I have something in place,” Louise said of her will, “and there’s nothing like a pandemic to make you do all that.”
Louise said other teachers in her area also know little about what protocols are planned when schools open in their district. What they’ve heard won’t be done has some worried enough to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
Eleeza, a high school teacher in the same district, told CNN she is updating her will, and putting a trust in place for her disabled, high-risk 19-year-old son.
She’s also struggling with a living will for her son, for whom she has legal guardianship, along with her husband and another person outside the household.
“What does a DNR (do not resuscitate order) look like with three guardians?” Eleeza asked. “We all have to agree on it.”
Amy Forehand, a first-grade teacher who was comfortable going on the record with her full name but not her school’s name or location, said figuring out how much supplemental life insurance to sign up for is a priority for this weekend.
“How are we in the middle of a pandemic, and I’m going into this germ factory, and we don’t have a will?” she said, speaking of herself and her husband.
A benefit of the supplemental life insurance is access to legal help in preparing a will, at no extra cost, she said.
‘Extreme anxiety about death’
The teachers CNN spoke with described themselves as planners, but said they need to know what to plan for.
“I have extreme anxiety about death,” Forehand said, breaking down in tears. “I like to be in control. That scares me, because i”m not in control.”
Some teachers feel more vulnerable to the coronavirus because they are older or have health conditions.
Although her age doesn’t put her in a high-risk group, Forehand said she has moderate to severe asthma.
“I’m not a risk taker,” she said. “It’s not something I want to gamble with.”
Eleeza, who has medical conditions that put her at risk for severe illness or death if she contracts the virus, said she hasn’t been into any building but her home since March 13.
Next month, she’ll be at a school that normally has 2,000 students and hundreds of staff members in a building she says is poorly ventilated. Her classrooms typically have 35-38 students at any time, she said, and she’s expected to clean each computer – every student uses one – between classes.
“In order to do that, I have to expose myself to areas of high touch,” she said.
Louise echoed these concerns. With coronavirus, “there are so many unknowns,” she said, “and I’m a planner.”
“So my anxiety is very high, because I’m afraid I’m going to bring it home to my family. Even though I’m wearing masks, using hand sanitizer, I just feel like we’re kind of being thrown into it.”
Teachers have been posting comments in groups across social media about preparing their wills and enrolling in supplemental life insurance as local Covid-19 cases keep rising, Louise said.
“I was just like, this is like real,” she said. “Maybe this is something I should do.”
Louise has started filling out online forms for a will, and a neighbor, who’s an attorney, has volunteered to look it over before she submits it. But she may end up going with a lawyer to do the whole process, just to be sure. She’s also urging her partner to get a will.
“God forbid I bring it home,” she said.
Thoughts of quitting
In addition to anxiety over potentially contracting the virus, many of the teachers expressed sadness and anger about the situation as a whole.
“I would never have thought, when I became a teacher,” Louise said, “I would need to get a will in place in order to go back to work.”
Those interviewed said they would prefer digital learning, as school districts near them have chosen for reopening.
“How bad does it have to get before we decide to completely go to virtual learning?” Louise asked.
Some have thought about quitting, but worry about the financial repercussions of taking a break.
Eleeza said she can’t afford to quit her job, that “every choice I make affects” the future of her son.
“We have to fund his trust for the rest of his life,” she said.
Forehand said she’s thought about taking a break from teaching – she can do it for a year, unpaid, and keep her job. Her mother asks her to quit, almost daily, she said.
“She’s literally begged me,” she said.
Still, she said it’s a job she loves, and she feels she needs to be there out of solidarity with her coworkers.
But, Forehand said, there are those moments where “you’re looking at coworkers and thinking: Some of us may not live.”
CNN’s Dakin Andone contributed to this report.