AUSTIN (KXAN) — As teachers prepare to head back to school, albeit virtually for most, it remains to be seen how many of the approximately 140,000 retirement-eligible teachers will risk going back to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between 125,000-140,000 active teachers in Texas are eligible for retirement, according to the Retired Teachers Association. In addition to making up the highest-risk demographic for the virus, these teachers are also the most experienced educators in the state.
Christie Smith, a kindergarten teacher in the Pflugerville Independent School District, is eligible for retirement but is staying in her position to maintain health benefits and job security during this uncertain time.
“I know lots and lots of teachers who have retired or just resigned,” said Smith, who has been teaching for 29 years. “The unknown is scary.”
Under guidance from Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Association, school districts can provide virtual learning for up to eight weeks to begin the school year. After eight weeks, districts will have to work with the state to determine if they are able to continue limits to in-person instruction.
If a district shuts down in-person education for longer than the state allows, they could risk losing funding from the state.
Abbott, in an interview with KXAN on Monday, said teachers have nothing to worry about.
“There is no concern that teachers should have with regard to the safety of the setting of the school environment, knowing full well that they have the capability of educating children remotely for months on end before they do have to go into a classroom,” Abbott said.
So far, the Austin Independent School District isn’t seeing a spike in departures. Since the academic school year ended in May, 69 regular staff members have retired or resigned from their positions, compared with 129 over the same period in 2019.
Still, Education Austin President Ken Zarifis says students shouldn’t be attending classes in-person until, at least, mid-November. The labor union, which represents teachers and staff from the district, published a list of demands for AISD leadership before the proposed school year begins Aug. 18.
“It’s about safety,” Zarifis said.
Zarifis said additional time is needed for teachers, students and parents to become familiar with virtual learning platforms.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done once teachers are back to prepare people for a positive and successful online reality and this (would) provide for that,” he said.
Smith worries about bringing the virus home to her family. She said providing virtual education through the end of the year would give teachers some much-needed relief.
“I remember laughing at my son when he was worried about me,” Smith told KXAN. “I said ‘Oh, no, that’s for grandparents. Not for me.'”
“But that’s me.”