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A High School Teacher Resigns Over In-Person Instruction


We're been thinking about the big question marks hovering over our lives thanks to the current pandemic. So much of American life is influenced by the rhythm of the school year - for students, for working parents, and therefore, really, for the larger economy. So we want to turn our attention to what school will look like in the fall. And we begin in Indiana, where some schools have already opened and are already having issues. One school in Greenfield, Ind., had to quarantine people after a student tested positive for COVID-19 on the very first day of school.

This is the type of situation that Heidi Hisrich seeks to avoid. She's a high school science teacher from Richmond, Ind., who decided she'd rather resign after 13 years at her school than be in an unsafe environment. We wanted to learn more about what went into her decision, so we called her up.

Heidi Hisrich, welcome.

HEIDI HISRICH: Thank you for having me.

FOLKENFLIK: Tell us a little bit about your school district. And then tell us a bit about the plan they offered you for reopening this fall.

HISRICH: So my district - we're in a small town. And the district just has one high school, which is the school that I've taught at for the last 13 years. And the plan for our district at the time that I resigned was that all students would have the option to either be virtual or to come back in person for five days a week. And the district definitely prioritized coming back in person in terms of the plan the way that we viewed it, my husband and I. But they did give the option to be virtual.

They have since shifted and decided that six through 12 would be a hybrid model, with kids coming every other day, rather than every day. And they also still have the option to be virtual if they prefer. But if they're in person, it will only be two to three days a week. The other part of the plan was that they would social distance when possible. And when they couldn't social distance, people would wear masks.

FOLKENFLIK: So in this process, how well did the school's administrators, you know, address the concerns of you and other teachers that you might have raised along the way?

HISRICH: It did not seem to me that the concerns of teachers and staff members were a top priority for the administration. It seemed as though their first priority was definitely satisfying the community and listening to what parents wanted. And what they heard from parents, by and large, was, we want our kids to go back to school five days a week. The word normal kept coming up - our kids need normal.

And I think that part of what I have struggled with is that I feel we're selling this idea of normal, and that it's just not possible right now to have normal and to have safe. And we have to pick one or the other. And I think in our district, they have prioritized the idea of normal over the idea of safety. And even having done so, I don't think anything about school this year for the kids who go in person will feel normal. So I think it's really a false promise.

FOLKENFLIK: Resigning couldn't have been easy for you, given your record and your clear passion. What was the inflection point? What made you decide, you know what? I need to walk away.

HISRICH: It was when my husband and I sat down and talked. And we talked about the best and the worst possible version of this year. And the worst possible version is sickness and possibly death of someone I care about - a student, a colleague - and my complicit involvement in that by being live in the classroom. And the best possible version of this year was me constantly trying to stay away from my students, keep my students away from each other, not having my students participate in things like labs, forcing them to sit in straight rows and wear masks.

And I ended up calling it my spectrum of misery because nowhere in that spectrum did I see a way that I could be happy with what I do. And teaching is my absolute passion, and I didn't know how I could go into it just knowing that it was going to be so miserable.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, I want to be clear to listeners - where your school district started is not precisely where it landed. Where it landed sounds a lot like a lot of school districts across the country - right? - in terms of, well, we're going to offer options. We're going to hope that some don't do it. That'll lessen the classroom volume. We'll have spacing. We'll do masks. You know, we care. We've heard, and we care.

How reassured are you by its choices? And what would you say to teachers in these other districts not in Richmond, Ind., that may have kind of parallel policies at the moment?

HISRICH: I think that what they have ended up with is better. Certainly, the hybrid model is going to give you less exposure. However, the total number of students that the teachers will interact with at the high-school level is the same. They're just seeing half of them every other day. So to me, it's not nearly enough. And I was just unable to get the reassurance from my district that we would have a mask policy that we would really enforce and that could keep everyone safe. So that was a big factor for me.

FOLKENFLIK: So what's next for Heidi Hisrich?

HISRICH: So I'm very excited. I'm going to be teaching students in Camden, Ark., which is 750 miles from my home. And I'll do it from my back porch. And I will get to teach all four years of the program that I love, that I've taught for nine years. And I'll have a new group of students that I'm connecting with.

FOLKENFLIK: We've been hearing from Heidi Hisrich. She's a former teacher at Richmond High School in Richmond, Ind.

Heidi Hisrich, thanks so much for joining us.

HISRICH: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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