INDIANAPOLIS -- With many teachers opting out of returning to the classroom because of the coronavirus, schools around the U.S. are scrambling to find replacements and in some places lowering certification requirements to help get substitutes in the door.
Several states have seen surges in educators filing for retirement or taking leaves of absence. The departures are straining staff in places that were dealing with shortages of teachers and substitutes even before the pandemic.
Among those leaving is Kay Orzechowicz, an English teacher at Indiana's Griffith High School, who at 57 had hoped to teach for a few more years. But she felt her school's leadership was not fully committed to ensuring proper social distancing and worried that not enough safety equipment would be provided for students and teachers.
Add the technology requirements and the pressure to record classes on video, and Orzechowicz said it "just wasn't what I signed up for when I became a teacher."
"Overall, there was just this utter disrespect for teachers and their lives," she said. "We're expected to be going back with so little." When school leaders said teachers would be "going back in-person, full-throttle, that's when I said, 'I'm not doing it. No.'"
Teachers in at least three states have died after bouts with the coronavirus since the start of the new school year. It's unclear how many teachers in the U.S. have become ill with covid-19, but Mississippi alone reported 604 cases among teachers and staff.
In cases where teachers are exposed to the virus, they could face pressure to return to the classroom. The Trump administration has declared teachers to be "critical infrastructure workers" in guidance that could give the green light to exempting them from quarantine requirements.
Throughout Indiana, more than 600 teacher retirements have been submitted since July, according to state data. Although the state gets most of its teacher retirements during the summer, surveys suggest more exits than usual could happen as the calendar year progresses, said Trish Whitcomb, executive director of the Indiana Retired Teachers Association.
"I've gotten more calling me back saying, 'Well, I'm going to go ahead and retire,'" Whitcomb said. "Some still wanted to go back in the classroom, but they didn't think the risk was worth it. They looked at their grandkids and the life they have, and I think they're saying, 'I'm just not going to do it.'"
In Salt Lake County, Utah, more than 80 teachers have either resigned or retired early because of concerns about covid-19 in schools. More than half of those came in a single district, Granite, and each was fined $1,000 for failing to give 30 days' notice.
Mike McDonough, president of the Granite Education Association teachers union, said the departures stem from frustration over how the schools have reopened. In Granite, most students will return to in-person instruction for four days a week, and there are few opportunities for teachers to instruct solely online.
Some teachers waited until the last minute, hoping the district would change its reopening plan. But ultimately checking out of the classroom was "the only way to keep themselves safe," he said.
"Teachers are still scared and overwhelmed," McDonough said. "I have heard from teachers that are just heartbroken to leave the classroom, but they didn't feel safe going back. They don't want that level of risk, and they have no other choice but to get out."Gallery: Coronavirus scenes, 9-13-2020
Education leaders in states including Arizona, Kansas, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Texas have said they are bracing for worsening teacher shortages.
The Missouri Board of Education made it easier to become a substitute under an emergency rule. Instead of the previous requirement -- 60 hours of college credit -- they now need only a high school diploma, a 20-hour online training course and a background check.
Iowa responded similarly, relaxing coursework requirements and the minimum working age for newly hired substitutes.
In Connecticut, college students have been asked to step in as substitutes. Michele Femc-Bagwell, director of the teacher education program at the University of Connecticut, said the school has been getting requests to use fifth-year graduate students as substitutes. Heavy class loads and internship responsibilities, though, limit their availability to one day a week.
Many who work as substitutes are retired teachers, such as 67-year-old Margaret Henderson of Phoenix, who said she will not return as she had planned.
"I don't want to get called into a classroom where a teacher has called out because of the virus or to quarantine. ... And we know that's going to happen more and more," Henderson said. "There are still uncertainties about the safety of reopening the school buildings. Can you blame [substitutes] for not wanting to go in?"
In rural Iowa, Hinton High School Principal Phil Goetstouwers said the school is already down to a third of the substitute teachers it had last year.
Allen Little, who retired as a math teacher in Sioux City, Iowa, this past spring, said the "complexities" of teaching during the pandemic made him decide to retire three years sooner than he had planned. Although he anticipated returning to work as a part-time substitute this fall, fears about the virus are holding him back. He encouraged his son, who is studying to be a social studies teacher and who considered getting experience as a substitute, to weigh the risks carefully.
"We're thinking about students, our schools, our community with every decision we make," Little said. "But we also have to think about ourselves and our families. What's best for us, maybe more and more of us ... is not being inside the classrooms right now."
Israel will head into a second coronavirus lockdown, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday night after a sharp escalation in the number of new infections in recent weeks.
The lockdown, which requires schools, stores, malls and hotels to close and reinstates restrictions on people's movements for at least three weeks starting Friday, marks an attempt to halt the trajectory that saw more than 4,000 new cases in a single day last week in a country of about 9 million people.
"Our economy is still in a good shape," Netanyahu assured the public, pointing out that Israel's rising numbers mirrored what was happening in many other countries and reflected the challenge of reopening society and the economy after the first lockdown in March and April.
Israel began reopening in early May, including sending children back to school before the summer vacation to allow parents to return to work. Now, said Netanyahu, the worrying trend of recent weeks has caused the "health services to raise a red flag" and forced the government to adopt the recommendations of a recently appointed coronavirus czar.
Although the number of critical cases appears low, medical centers in Israel have said they are approaching full capacity and fear that the number of sick will increase dramatically as Israel heads into winter and begins a month of Jewish holy festivals starting Friday.
"We are preparing in advance, closing down, so we can get out ahead of the virus," said Netanyahu. "It will be a different kind of holiday this year."
Austria is seeing the start of a "second wave" of coronavirus infections, the country's leader said Sunday, urging citizens to comply with reinforced rules to keep down new cases and suggesting that companies keep employees working from home if possible.
Austria had a relatively successful first phase of the pandemic but has joined other European countries in seeing a rise in infections in recent weeks. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced Friday that the government would reimpose measures such as mandatory mask-wearing in shops, and he stepped up his rhetoric Sunday.
"What we are experiencing at the moment is the beginning of the second wave in Austria," he said.
About half of the new infections are in Vienna, the capital, but they are rising across the country, Kurz said. He noted most people are getting infected at family gatherings, birthday parties and other private events, but added that "these infections are often taken to work."
He said many companies have had "good experiences" with people working from home. "It makes sense if, where companies want to, where it works well and where experiences are positive, this is continued and expanded," he said.
Kurz urged companies to upgrade their safety protections. He said things should be back to normal next summer, "but until then, autumn and winter will be very challenging."
READYING FOR VACCINE
Pfizer Inc. Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla says it's "likely" the U.S. will deploy a covid-19 vaccine to the public before year's end and that the company is prepared for that scenario, pushing back against more tepid expectations shared by health authorities.
Bourla said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation" that he's "quite comfortable" that the vaccine the company is developing in partnership with BioNTech SE is safe and that it could be available to Americans before 2021, contingent on approval from federal regulators at the Food and Drug Administration.
"I cannot say what the FDA will do," Bourla said. "But I think it's a likely scenario, and we are preparing for it."
New York-based Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech are seen as front-runners in the race to develop a vaccine, alongside Moderna Inc. and AstraZeneca Plc. Bourla said Pfizer and its partner have a 60% chance of knowing the efficacy of its still-experimental vaccine by the end of October.
"Of course that doesn't mean that it works; that means that we'll know if it works," Bourla said. The timing of clinical trial results depends on enough people in the study getting covid-19 to make a calculation. But positive results could clear the way for approval, he said.
Bourla's assurances come just as Pfizer and BioNTech have expanded the number of clinical trial participants they're seeking in order to include more people with diverse backgrounds.
Information for this article was contributed by Casey Smith, Pat Eaton-Robb and staff members of The Associated Press; by Ruth Eglash of The Washington Post; and by Riley Griffin and Anna Edney of Bloomberg News.