Christy Karwatt teaches social studies, but she’s been thinking more like a math teacher the past few days.
At 61, the Sarasota High School teacher is entering her 27th year in Florida's system, and she loves her job. She had planned on teaching three more years to maximize her retirement payment.
As COVID-19 cases spike across the country, officials pour on pressure to reopen schools full-time this fall.
Monday, Florida's education commissioner ordered the state's schools to open full-time in August. Tuesday, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos criticized plans to offer in-person instruction only a few days a week. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reworking its guidance on reopening schools after President Donald Trump said the guidelines were too tough.
Karwatt began crunching the numbers on how much money she would sacrifice if she retired early.
"I’m at an age where I am scared for my life," she said. "What good is money if you are sick or dead?"
Other questions nag at Karwatt.
What if she retires early, then schools are closed, meaning she would have been teaching from the safety of her own home? What if she returns, only to catch COVID-19 and has to retire early anyway, or worse?
As directives shift, teachers such as Karwatt desperately try to figure out what the next school year will look like and whether it is worth returning to potentially dangerous classrooms or if they should walk away from a job that many view as a calling.
In a USA TODAY/Ipsos poll in May, 1 in 5 U.S. teachers said they were unlikely to go back to school if their classrooms reopened in the fall.
It's a question many still don’t know how to answer.
"I will probably wait until the last minute to make a decision," Karwatt said. "I think that is how everybody is."
A case that hit close to home
Susan Nations, principal of Wilkinson Elementary School in Sarasota, used her public Facebook page to document her experience battling COVID-19, spending a week in the hospital before being released this week.
"I cannot walk six inches to the chair without a major coughing fit," she wrote July 1.
The next day, she wrote about wanting to help her fellow patients as they struggled for breath.
"Of course I hear my own cough, my own gasp as my lungs cry out for a deep draw of air," she wrote. "But the truth is also I can hear my neighbor through this wall doing the same thing repeatedly throughout the day and night. And you want to run and help, but you can’t."
Monday, Nations posted that she had returned home after a week in the hospital.
As teachers learned about state leaders pushing to reopen, Nations’ close-to-home experience seemed to be a harbinger of the dangers reopening poses.
Nations told her staff in an email sent July 1 that she believed she contracted the virus during a meeting on campus where staffers were not wearing masks but were socially distanced.
A principal caught the virus during the relatively quiet summer months of the school-year calendar. Facebook commenters wondered: Would district staff stay safe once schools are fully in session?
"Am I going to look at my students," said Sarasota High teacher Mary DeArment, 59, "as if they are potentially going to kill me," or her 92-year-old mother? "I hate that," she said Tuesday.
A third of U.S. principals say they feel confident in their school's chance to "preserve the health of staff and students" when they reopen in the fall, according to a poll released Wednesday by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
"A principal’s primary and foundational duty is to keep students safe in school. Without that assurance, little real learning can take place," NASSP CEO JoAnn Bartoletti said in a news release.
In the USA TODAY/Ipsos poll, nearly 9 in 10 teachers said they foresee difficulties in enforcing social distancing among their students.
Administrators have talked about students pitching in to help stem the spread. As they describe students helpfully wiping down desks or obediently wearing masks, many teachers wonder what students they are referring to.
"A high school is kind of like a cruise ship, an incubator," DeArment said. "It is their developmental imperative to interact with one another. They feel invincible."
Options for teachers unclear
Sarasota County School District officials do not know how many teachers won't return this year.
Chief Academic Officer Laura Kingsley said Tuesday that the district wants to keep its most vulnerable teachers safe, but remote teaching assignments will be determined largely by the certifications a teacher holds and which students want remote instruction.
"I definitely want to consider the health issues a teacher is facing," Kingsley said. "But we will not be able to accommodate them if their school does not have a demand for remote instruction."
Many teachers said they look at the fiscal realities as closely as they consider the health risks. After meeting with her financial planner Tuesday, DeArment had her answer.
"I cannot afford either retirement or leave of absence," she said in a text message. "I will be returning to school in August. May invest in a hazmat suit."