With ‘no way’ to stay safe, coronavirus drives Michigan teacher to quit

New Boston teacher Liza McArdle packs up her classroom for the last time. McArdle is retiring earlier than she’d planned because she doesn’t believe classrooms will be safe from the pandemic. (Courtesy photo)

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.”

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

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.”

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Barry Visel
Wed, 06/17/2020 - 2:33pm

Suggestion to Bridge...The next time you do a story on unfunded liabilities (like public pension funds), you might highlight the impact of how allowing workers to retire at age 50 with full pension benefits may be part of the problem.

Thu, 06/18/2020 - 8:48am

Yep like the politicians in Lansing 12 years and a full pension!!!!

Wed, 06/17/2020 - 7:10pm

And what is safe? Or what's safe enough? Where is this line drawn? Would a level 3 biohazard suit make one better than someone only wearing a mask? Is a motorcyclist or base jumper wearing a mask somehow more virtuous, safe and caring than a guy walking down the sidewalk without? The perception, and acceptance of relative risk in this is interestingly irrational.

middle of the mit
Thu, 06/18/2020 - 6:57pm

NO! Motorcyclists are safer without helmets!

Yeah! Conservatives in MI passed that law!

And you think we should take your advice on safety?

Wed, 06/17/2020 - 8:19pm

The teachers like Ms. McArdle have valid reasons to be concerned about their health, the virus, and their classrooms.
I notice that Governor Whitmer’s advisory panel is focused on the return of students, that suggests that there is a similar panel focus on the return of teachers to the classroom. That is discouraging, it is ad if nobody in Lansing cares about the teachers and simply sees them as a classroom fixture, and that can be disheartening. Not even the reporter seemed interest in the actual risks, did seem to consider that when a teacher weighs their classroom risk they have to consider more than themselves, they have to think about their family both now and in the future and what could the risk of covid 19 impact be on those the teacher is responsible for and may impact. Neither the reporter nor it seems is anyone asking the teacher what are their specific concerns, how do they think they could be mitigated, how could their risks be significantly lowered.
To me the teacher is the job ‘expert’; they are the working ‘expert’ about the classroom, their classroom. If there is to be an advisory panel on returning teachers to the classroom it should include some working classroom experts to make the panel’s recommendation practical and workable in their classrooms. I for one would like to hear all of the concerns Ms. McArdle and other teachers are facing in their classrooms and schools.

Tue, 07/21/2020 - 12:45pm

We are embarking on a level of stupidity that this nation has never seen before. The parents yelling to send their kids back to school, yes some of them need to have their kids back in school to make an income but what do they do with their kids for weekend work or during the summer? What do they do when the kids come home at 2:30 - 3:30 and they work until 5,6, or 7 pm? The majority of the parents I've seen on facebook complaining, we know to have at least one person staying at home working or just they dont work. Comments like "I need a break from my kids, send them back!" show the disregard for this disease and the severity. Very immature selfish people out there.
It wont matter though. Teachers already get pushed around too much and are held to standards being robotic and not human. Kids cannot be scolded or secluded , even the most disruptive and downright violent, and yet these teachers are going to be expected to enforce the mask rule? Teachers that complain or try to enforce will be told by their leadership (principals, superintendents) to suck it up and if they continue to complain they will be targeted for bad reviews. So teachers have all but given up on teaching and are dismayed in America, now with this disease I think you will see MANY quitting and getting jobs making the same amount of money for doing clerical work at a small business or even working at a big box store. 6 years education, bills out the wazzoo for student loans and these people who set out with the best intentions will finally feel defeated enough to abandon their craft and reinvent.

Chuck Jordan
Thu, 06/18/2020 - 10:19am

Damned if we do open schools, damned if we don't. This is the world we live in now. Viruses are not going away and if we don't figure out a way to live with them, a Great Depression will be a likely outcome.

Janey Kelly
Tue, 06/23/2020 - 12:03pm

If I were a parent of a school age child, I would not be sending them to school. I would be home schooling. Until covid-19 is tamed and we have a vaccine, I'm staying home.