March 13 was a half-day of school at Huron High School in New Boston, in western Wayne County. Students in French class had their heads down, taking an end-of-term exam in the last hours before Michigan schools closed down as COVID-19 spread across the state.
In front of the students, French and Spanish teacher Liza McArdle was searching for her own answers.
“They’re taking an exam, and I’m wiping down everything on my desk with Lysol wipes,” recalled McArdle, 50. “And I’m thinking, ‘Is this the last time I’m in this classroom as a teacher? Am I going to be alive [when students return to class]? Is my family going to make it?’ It was scary times.”
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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says students will return to school this fall. But McArdle won’t. The 27-year veteran teacher is calling it quits, saying she doesn’t feel safe returning to the classroom during the worst pandemic in a century.
“In my mind, this is no joke,” McArdle said. “This could be life and death.”
Liza McArdle took a selfie on the day she cleaned out the classroom in the school where she’d taught for 27 years. She doesn’t think schools can operate safely until a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, so she retired early. (Courtesy photo)
A recent survey found that nearly a third of Michigan educators were leaving the profession, considering quitting or retiring early in the wake of COVID-19, which so far has sickened more than 60,000 and killed about 5,800 in the state.
In the survey of more than 15,000 educators conducted by the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, 4.8 percent said they are retiring earlier than they had planned because of coronavirus, and 2.2 percent said they were leaving the classroom short of retirement because of health concerns connected to the pandemic. Another 23 percent said they were considering leaving.
Counting only those like McArdle who say they are definitely leaving the profession would represent a loss of about 7,000 teachers across the state. Even a small unexpected exodus of teachers could wreak havoc on Michigan schools. As Bridge has reported, some schools already face shortages of full-time teachers, forcing districts to use untrained long-term substitutes to lead classrooms.
McArdle is an example of a Michigan teacher who would have been in the classroom in the 2020-21 school year if not for coronavirus safety concerns.
McArdle’s first job when she earned her teaching certificate at Michigan State University was as a foreign language teacher at Huron High School, a job she’s held for 27 years. In her first years, she taught Spanish, and added French in 2000. She said she likes her colleagues at the 870-student school, and has become friends with some of her former students.
McArdle has worked enough years that she can retire and receive her pension. It’s not unusual for teachers to work for years past their earliest retirement date, both to continue to receive a paycheck and to increase their pension.
That was McArdle’s plan. She said she could have retired several years ago, and had planned to work past the 2019-20 school year. Coronavirus changed that. The thought of teaching classes in a small classroom while there is still no vaccine for the potentially deadly virus made her decide to leave teaching now.
“There’s no way to keep people safe” in classrooms, McArdle said. “I teach languages. Students have to talk. I’ve read enough to know it spreads through respiratory [droplets]. How could I do a good job teaching when I’m worried about what I’m breathing in my classroom?”
Whitmer has said in several media interviews that schools will reopen in the fall but “it might look different than what we're used to and it's going to be an adjustment for all of us.”
Whitmer created a school reopening advisory panel to recommend how to return students to school safely. Those recommendations are expected to be released in late June or early July. Some districts have already announced plans for the fall. Some plans include moving desks six feet apart for social distancing, and having only half of students attend classes in-person at a time, with the others attending remotely. Students might wear face coverings.
McArdle is skeptical those plans will keep students and staff safe. “Even if you have half as many [students in a class], there’s no way you can get kids to socially distance,” she said. “You’re going to have some who won’t want to wear masks and have parents who are opposed to it. And half our classrooms are interior, so there’s no way to open windows.”
The Ann Arbor resident said she has no underlying health conditions that put her at a higher risk of dying from the coronavirus. Still, McArdle said fears about the potentially deadly virus outweigh the financial benefit of staying.
“The pandemic taught me that life is short,” McArdle said. “Working another year at a job… where I am stressed about getting sick is not worth it.”