‘Not worth it’: Resignation letters highlight risk as Leon County teachers quit over COVID-19

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Tallahasssee Democrat | by CD Davidson-Hiers | October 22, 2020

More than three dozen teachers resigned from Leon County Schools or took early retirement from August through the first two weeks of school, according to resignation letters submitted to the district. 

Fourteen of 38 teachers cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a specific reason for their resignations. A couple said the demands of a hybrid teaching model — combining in-person and online instruction — were too difficult for them. 

Another handful alluded to challenging family circumstances, a few submitted early retirement forms, and the rest did not give a reason for leaving in their resignation letters submitted to school administrators. 

The school district employs 1,863 classroom teachers, according to district documents. 

In late September, district spokesman Chris Petley confirmed that 36 teachers had resigned from the district, but said the district did not track the reasons for teachers leaving. 

Leon County Schools teachers gathered at the Aquilina Howell Center for a caravan protest against the reopening of brick-and-mortar schools amid the coronavirus. pandemic on Aug. 4, 2020.Casey Chapter/Tallahassee Democrat

The resignation letters and notices of early retirement were obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat after a public records request. The teachers’ names are public record under Florida law, but the Democrat has chosen not to identify them because of a variety of personal reasons they gave.

“As a single mother, the COVID-19 virus has created a situation which will be unsafe for me and my family and I cannot afford to put my health at risk,” one Deerlake Middle School teacher wrote in her Aug. 3 resignation letter. 

The resignation letters and notices of early retirement were obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat after a public records request. The teachers’ names are public record under Florida law, but the Democrat has chosen not to identify them because of a variety of personal reasons they gave.

“As a single mother, the COVID-19 virus has created a situation which will be unsafe for me and my family and I cannot afford to put my health at risk,” one Deerlake Middle School teacher wrote in her Aug. 3 resignation letter. 

Another teacher wrote she could not fulfill her duties because of “my son’s fear of being exposed to the coronavirus.” Moreover, multiple educators said they had decided to take an early retirement “in light of” the COVID-19 pandemic. 

One Riley Elementary School teacher said she was unwilling to put her family at risk given that “there are too many unknowns with COVID-19.” Added another Ruediger Elementary School teacher: “The risk is not worth it.”

Physical classrooms reopened Aug. 31 after the district postponed reopening twice and state leaders gave seemingly contradictory directives to local districts. 

Gilchrist Elementary School teachers greet parents in a drive-thru line and hand them a bag with their child's belongings while wearing masks and gloves, Tuesday, April 7, 2020.
Gilchrist Elementary School teachers greet parents in a drive-through line and hand them a bag with their child’s belongings, while wearing masks and gloves, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat

In early July, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran mandated all schools must reopen physical classrooms for at least five days a week by no later than the end of August.

The controversial order seemed to counteract a directive from Gov. Ron DeSantis that school districts could decide on their own how best to handle reopen during the pandemic. 

The Leon County public school district pulled together a 21-member task force of local officials, parents, a Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare administrator and others to address reopening procedures. 

As August began, Superintendent Rocky Hanna sent out a letter to teachers apologizing for the overwhelming summer. 

“Needless to say, this summer has been unlike any other,” Hanna wrote. “In the meantime, however, I feel as though I completely lost touch with you. For this, I sincerely apologize.” 

A Fort Braden School teacher greets students tuning into class digitally on the first day of school Monday, August 31, 2020.
A Fort Braden School teacher greets students tuning into class digitally on the first day of school August 31, 2020. Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat

As the Aug. 31 first day of school drew closer, school officials prepared for about 15,000 students to return to physical classrooms and for roughly 15,400 to enter the online Digital Academies tied to each school. 

“I find it necessary to submit my resignation because COVID-19 has created a myriad of challenges that my husband and I feel are simply too great for our family at this time,” another teacher from Lincoln High School wrote Aug. 10. “We feel that it is in the best interest of our family (for me) to take this year off from teaching in order to focus on the needs of our family at home.” 

Ten of the resignations and early retirements came in the first two weeks of school, according to the dates of the resignation letters and retirement forms. 

Two teachers mentioned COVID-19 in their resignation letters but said the demands of a hybrid teaching model were too great for them to meet, which is why they were resigning.  

“I am unwilling to subject myself to a year of feeling vulnerable and alone in the face of the apparent expectation of continuous perfection in this new and challenging environment,” one teacher from Woodville PreK-8 School wrote. “It is my opinion that synchronous teaching sets teachers up to fail in both platforms rather than enabling them to succeed in either one. I am done.” 

Fort Braden School teachers give a warm welcome to students arriving by bus on the first day of school Monday, August 31, 2020.
Fort Braden School teachers give a warm welcome to students arriving by bus on the first day of school Monday, August 31, 2020. Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat

Another teacher from Montford Middle School, who said she had been a teacher at the school since it opened said she felt the dual system the district has established — Digital Academy and in-person instruction — creates “an impossible pedagogical situation.” 

“As a teacher who believes that all students deserve a complete educational experience, I cannot in good conscience continue to try to participate in a model that I feel will not, despite anyone’s best efforts, meet the needs of both groups simultaneously,” she wrote. 

Since these resignations, 3,400 students will return to classrooms Nov. 3 after the district gave families the option to switch learning options at nine weeks into the semester.  

“As a pedagogy, this is not optimal … but right now we feel as though this gets us to a place where we need to be to educate our children,” Hanna said in mid-October of the hybrid model. 

The district also has begun handing out the Chromebooks it spent $10.5 million to purchase in a pilot program at Woodville K-8 School, Elizabeth Cobb Middle School and DeSoto Trail Elementary School.