Older school workers worry about virus risks if Florida campuses reopen

As plans take shape for the start of a new school year, some are concerned about over-60 teachers, bus drivers and others. "I don’t want to go back, catch it and I’m dead.”
This view of a crowded cafeteria at Pinellas Park Middle, before the school was renovated, shows why some educators are concerned about older school workers returning to campuses as the coronavirus continues to be a threat. People over 60 are at increased risk of contracting the virus.
This view of a crowded cafeteria at Pinellas Park Middle, before the school was renovated, shows why some educators are concerned about older school workers returning to campuses as the coronavirus continues to be a threat. People over 60 are at increased risk of contracting the virus. [ Times (2017) ]
Published May 30, 2020

Michael Nagy loves being an art teacher.

“It’s still the only subject that allows creativity,” the Hillsborough County educator says.

All things being equal, he’d jump at the chance to return to his Folsom Elementary classroom and the school’s nearly 500 students in the fall.

But ...

“I am 61 years old,” he said. “I have diabetes. I have high blood pressure. ... I’m staying home except for groceries.”

The thought of stepping back into a school, knowing all the health risks that COVID-19 poses to older adults, has Nagy on edge. He wonders how social distancing might look in a school, and if it ever can succeed.

Related: In Florida, 83 percent of coronavirus deaths are people 65 and older

Classrooms might not have adequate space to separate 26 to 28 children. And what about all those hands dipping into the buckets of crayons he provides for projects?

“I don’t know if I can or want to do that,” Nagy said. “I’d have to confer with my doctor.”

Art teacher Michael Nagy [Courtesy of Michael Nagy]
Art teacher Michael Nagy [Courtesy of Michael Nagy]

He’s not alone in having such concerns. Nationwide, at least 18 percent of teachers are age 55 year or older. In other key jobs, such as bus driver and cafeteria worker, the percentage rises.

And the more those employees worry about exposing themselves to gaggles of children who might be carrying the virus, the more school district leaders fret.

“I need these people,” said Kurt Browning, superintendent of the neighboring Pasco County school district.

Florida, like much of the rest of the nation, has a shortage of applicants for its teaching positions, Browning noted. Getting people to drive buses is more challenging.

Having large percentages of those workers possibly not returning at one time — when arguably even more of them could be needed — poses a troublesome scenario.

Hillsborough County schools anticipate allowing older staff members to continue working from home if possible, district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said. Pinellas and Pasco district officials said they’re working on plans that will protect employees’ health and safety.

Addressing those matters is critical if districts hope to convince workers to consider returning, said Mike Gandolfo, Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president. He suggested districts look into all available options, whether in or outside classrooms, as a too-high percentage of staff afraid to go to work “is going to be very problematic for everybody.”

The American Federation of Teachers recently issued a proposal that calls for consideration of at-risk workers. Randi Weingarten, the organization’s president, said the federal Americans With Disabilities Act offers ample safeguards.

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Randi Weingarten
Randi Weingarten [ Courtesy of the American Federation of Teachers ]

“We believe the ADA covers our members who, because of age or pre-existing conditions, believe it’s not safe to be in a school building during this COVID pandemic absent a vaccine,” Weingarten said.

With proper planning, school districts should be able to make adequate accommodations, she added.

Those could include allowing teachers to conduct the distance learning lessons that inevitably will take place as some families choose to keep their children home. Older bus drivers and other employees could help with online tutoring and other functions that do not require interaction with large numbers of people, Weingarten noted.

Such approaches must factor in to whatever solutions districts attempt, said John Bailey, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who recently published a white paper on the topic. And they must look at a variety of ideas, he said.

“Schools are going to be confronting this challenge, and it’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Bailey, who has served as a policy adviser to several conservative organizations including Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education.

John Bailey
John Bailey [ Courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute ]

He said some employees will want to work from home, and districts should do everything possible to make that happen. Others might see themselves as close to retirement and think about whether the time has arrived to end their careers.

States and districts should look into establishing early retirement programs for those people, Bailey said.

He stressed, though, that employees should not be placed in any take it or leave it situations.

“They shouldn’t have to make workers decide between their safety and coming to work,” he said.

All of this effort could require extra money to pay for added staff, retirement incentives and other initiatives. If the government could do that for hospitals, Bailey said, it should consider the same for schools.

Nagy, the Folsom Elementary art teacher, said he would give some thought to an early retirement if the state offers a plan. He could make the move as soon as February.

“I would have liked to stay in a little more. But it’s scary,” he explained. “I don’t want to go back, catch it and I’m dead.”

But a good offer is key, he added, because otherwise he would face a monthly insurance premium of maybe $700 until Medicare kicks in.

So far, no such plan exists. And Nagy said he’s still waiting for specifics about his options from his district, which he hoped might come in June.

In the meantime, he said, his art supervisor has offered some advice.

“The art supervisor is making suggestions that we add some art supplies to the parents’ list of things to purchase for school next time,” he said, “so they would have their own art supplies if that becomes necessary.”