KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Anna Hoard was teaching a kindergarten class when her chest began to tighten and breathing grew difficult.
As the kids struggled to keep their masks over their noses and stay at their desks spread three feet apart, all of the weight of the past school year came crashing down on her. The 60-hour work weeks. The poor air circulation. The promises of remote online learning that were forgotten amid pressure for in-person classes. The rising case numbers.
As she hyperventilated, she knew she was having a panic attack.
"When it started, the students were still in the room, and I could tell things were going downhill. I was spiraling," said Hoard, who taught music in the Shawnee Mission district and has health issues putting her at higher risk of suffering the worst from COVID-19. "It was scary. I didn't know if I was going to black out or if I was going to get sick."
Throughout the Kansas City metro, more and more educators like Hoard have reached their breaking point while teaching amid the pandemic. She resigned in December, after months of feeling like her health was the last priority, that every day her life was at risk.
"Teachers were already so worn down by years and years of being told that your turn is next. We'll take care of you soon. Just plug along through whatever because you're close to retirement or you need this consistent income," she said. "And it's so heartbreaking that so many people I know and care about were put in these really unsafe positions that they knew were unsafe."
Even as COVID-19 vaccines are about to slowly roll out for school employees, in many districts, teachers, social workers, custodians and other employees are retiring, resigning and taking leave at higher rates, worried about the health of their families and students as well as themselves.
In Shawnee Mission, 25 elementary teachers have resigned this year, compared to three in 2019. Ten more retired, compared to none the previous school year. In total, the district has reported 46 resignations and retirements, compared to 11 the previous year.
The Olathe district has reported a 5% increase in resignations and retirements of certified staff, spokesman Cody Kennedy said.
Some other districts report little to no uptick. But in both Kansas and Missouri, the full scope of the vacancies won't be known until this spring, when the majority of retirements typically occur and teachers sign union contracts.
Last month the Missouri State Teachers Association surveyed its 33,000 members, and of the 6,000 who responded, 80% said "they feel significantly more stress" than they did a year ago. Nearly 60% said they have considered leaving the profession.
"I don't feel safe. This is not safe," said Blake Hodges, an Olathe special education teacher. "Teachers are wanting to resign but can't. How unethical is it that I have to choose between my family's personal safety and my own basic financial survival?"
It's a problem some districts are feeling across the country. Some Chicago Teachers Union members refused to return to schools this winter, saying they did not feel safe. Despite a work order requiring them to return in person, less than half showed up on the first day back, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Educators worry that the pandemic is exacerbating the teacher shortage that both Kansas and Missouri have been facing for years. Several new and veteran educators told The Star that they are considering leaving the field altogether after feeling mistreated this past year.
"The pandemic has shed light on this really being about putting bodies in rooms," Hodges said. "Is this about child care or is this about quality education?"
Administrators said they have done all they can this year to make classrooms safe, and health officials have said schools have done enough to largely avoid transmission in buildings. No matter the safety measures inside schools, they argued, the coronavirus is spreading in the community, from family gatherings, bars and people who don't wear masks.
Shawnee Mission, for one, "has taken every precaution necessary to keep our students and staff safe during the school year, as evidenced by the lack of transmission in schools," district spokesman David Smith said. "However, some staff have decided it was safer for them to resign or retire their positions. The district has worked hand-in-hand with these staff members to allow them to exit gracefully given the situation."
'The final straw'
Before this school year began, district officials asked teachers whether they preferred to work in person or remotely.
Districts had postponed starting school until after Labor Day, worried about surging COVID-19 cases. And most districts agreed to follow strict criteria, recommended by health departments, to help leaders determine when it was safe to have students in classrooms. If the numbers of new cases were rising too rapidly, everyone would pivot to online classes.
"I think a lot of teachers looked at the data, and then looked at the gating criteria, which was very conservative," Hoard said. "Based on that, we thought it would be difficult for us to ever be all in person. And many made that decision to not ask for a remote position because it seemed so unlikely."
But when families answered the same question — whether they preferred to have their students learn online or in person — district leaders learned staffing schools would be complicated. Administrators only had so many options.
In Johnson County's three largest districts, for example, roughly 70% of families chose to send students back to classrooms when allowed.
District officials said they had to prioritize giving remote schedules to those who had a medical exemption or were especially vulnerable to the virus. That left many who requested remote schedules — due to the health of themselves or their families, for example — with a mostly in-person schedule, teachers told The Star.
Teachers acknowledge that administrators have been given a seemingly impossible task, to keep schools operating with limited staff in the middle of a global crisis that the country was overwhelmingly unprepared for.
But in some districts, many teachers said they were frustrated to learn the decisions regarding who would work remotely or in person were left to school principals.
"I saw how the district was handling it, where every principal was the captain of their own ship. And if they wanted to sail their ship off the edge, no one will stop them," said Kristy Blomquist, who resigned from her position as a social worker in Shawnee Mission.
The burden was especially heavy for special education teachers, social workers and others who work with hundreds of students across entire school buildings and were often not given the option of working remotely. Many of those students need face-to-face communication, and some cannot wear masks.
Even for teachers who were given online-only classes, many said they were told to report to their classrooms to instruct them and worried about being in contact with co-workers.
Some told The Star they felt forced to take unpaid leave when they were not offered a remote schedule and felt they could not return to the classroom.
"I think there's a lot of people where this is the final straw. They can't come back from this. They can't come back from being treated this way in a time of crisis," Hoard said. "And that's so disappointing because I know they are wonderful teachers."
Still, last fall, districts promised to only open classrooms when case numbers dropped. Many started the school year with the majority of students online.
But then things changed.
'Teachers don't get to fold'
When districts decided to start the school year mostly online, hundreds of parents protested.
Across all Kansas City suburbs, parents demanded that their children be allowed to play sports, for their mental and physical health. They pleaded for a return to class, as parents struggled to balance child care with work schedules, and as their children fought to stay tuned in to Zoom classes.
"I would like to emphatically state that I think parents are doing the most right now, too. Parents are having to really step up their involvement with their students' school work. It's been wild, and nobody is pleased with how this all went," Hoard said. "I see where parents are coming from and why they're so frustrated."
Parents grew increasingly angry after bars, restaurants and businesses were allowed to fully reopen, but their children stayed at home.
Public pressure and the threat of lawsuits continued to shroud every school board meeting, as hundreds protested outside administration buildings.
When the coronavirus first hit in March, teachers were praised for making the pivot to online classes, said Todd Fuller, spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association.
But, he said, as the pandemic raged on and reports surfaced about students not absorbing online lessons and teachers not wanting to return to classrooms, "parents became frustrated and blamed teachers for continued online learning."
It didn't take long before most districts allowed sports, then changed their criteria to allow students into classrooms sooner. Many teachers agreed with parents that it was best for students to be in person, but with rising case numbers, they feared for their lives.
"My anger is not toward anybody other than district administrators and boards of education that have succumbed to public pressure," said Hodges, who worries about his family's safety since he has an infant at home. "That's why they changed the metrics. But teachers don't get to fold. We still have to deal with parents. We still have to deal with your kid."
As districts have changed learning models, teachers have had to quickly pivot between online classes, in person classes or a mix of the two. Many felt they risked their health as they transitioned to teach in person. Many experienced stress while moving all of their curriculum online, when students struggled to stay engaged. And many were asked to do both.
"Nobody told me what it would take and how to do this safely. We could have had small cohorts of kids coming in. There were other ways we could have done this," Hodges said. "If I was a hybrid teacher, I'd be losing my mind. Not only do you have to double how many times you teach in a day, but you also have to provide remote work for remote students. I can't imagine what they're going through."
And while districts spent millions of dollars on new air ventilation systems, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and technology, many teachers said they still felt ill-equipped to face students in the classroom.
Many voiced frustrations that they could not social distance in classrooms. Some districts said they would spread desks apart by three feet, rather than the recommended six. Some classrooms are filled with upward of 30 students.
Special education and other specialty teachers said they felt increasingly at risk as they traveled from classroom to classroom, seeing hundreds of students each day. Hodges said he has spent hundreds of dollars, of his own money, on cleaning supplies and masks.
And elementary teachers were given full-time, in-person schedules, as early research showed that the virus was less likely to be transmitted among younger children. The teachers felt vulnerable.
As the year continued, public health officials learned more about the spread of the virus in school buildings. And the Johnson County health department relaxed its guidance to districts on when to shut down.
Thanks to masks, social distancing, hand washing and partly remote schedules, officials said that districts had largely avoided in-school transmission. They added that ongoing sports, however, were causing some of the spread among students and staff.
The messaging then started to change, as schools continued to keep many students in classrooms despite the record numbers of new COVID-19 cases. Elizabeth Holschuh, an epidemiologist with the Johnson County health department, said in late fall she never expected to see such high numbers.
With cases spreading more rapidly than ever, teachers said they felt increasingly unsafe. Hundreds of students and staff were forced to take leave after contracting the virus or being exposed to it. The number of quarantines and cases in each district surged.
"Then the conversation went from safety to staffing. And that alone was just astonishing," Hodges said.
'Already a thankless job'
As cases surged, several area districts sent many students back to online classes after Thanksgiving. But in some districts, leaders emphasized it was because they were struggling to keep school doors open due to a lack of teachers and substitutes.
Because of school employees resigning or retiring, or stuck in quarantine, districts couldn't keep classrooms staffed. The message that schools would stay open until there weren't enough employees to run them rubbed some teachers the wrong way.
"Whether it was intended or not, it landed in a way that felt to myself and other educators that we were really only there to babysit," Hoard said. "It was already a thankless job, and now it's an unsafe job."
And they felt frustrated again after districts announced that they would return to hybrid or in-person schedules after winter break, not long after the holidays, when many gathered with families. Now they once again watch the number of COVID-19 cases in their schools rise.
And some worry it's only a matter of time before schools move online again because they don't have enough staff.
"There is no substitute system for social workers. So why put the one person who can perform a job for 800 students at extra risk?" said Blomquist, who filed a complaint against her old district with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"I think the bottom line is many people have felt that their district would sell you out in a heartbeat. And COVID just confirms that. Up until your safety and the sanctity of your life, we would sell you out."
While news that educators will receive vaccines in the coming months has provided some with hope, some said they are still considering retiring or resigning this year. And districts continue to feel the effects of their limited staffing pool.
Some wonder how that will affect hiring for this upcoming school year.
Dearld Snider, executive director of the Missouri Public School and Education Employee Retirement Systems, said that while he is hearing from school leaders that teachers are stressed, "we are not seeing a surge in retirement applications."
Snider said the system has received fewer applications for teacher retirement so far this school year than this time last year.
The same holds true in the Blue Valley district, where the number of teachers leaving is similar to previous years, said Eric Punswick, chief human resources officer.
But Snider expects the bulk of the retirement requests to come between now and spring break.
He doesn't expect to see early retirements because amid high unemployment, the person in the family with a steady job and benefits tends to hold on to it.
"It doesn't surprise me, given what educators have gone through in the last year that teachers might be talking about leaving, but we hope that when we have discussions with them we are saying, if they will hang on, their retirement is going to be solid and last them a lifetime."
Some educators worry that more will leave their jobs, or leave the field entirely, which could have long-term consequences.
Educators who left their positions told The Star they were heartbroken to give up a career that they had committed years of their lives to — but more than that, heartbroken to walk away from the students who made the job worth it.
"Teaching is a calling," Hoard said. "You're not just leaving a job, you're leaving a community of people you care deeply for."