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Teaching during a pandemic: one Oklahoma educator shares his experience

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Ted Hartley, a teacher at Harding Fine Arts Academy in Oklahoma City decided to join the family business, teaching, after a 35-year-long career as a software engineer.

With four semesters and two summer sessions of teaching through a pandemic, educators across the country are navigating a landscape of quarantines, school mask mandates, and balancing the safety of their family members.

A poll from the National Education Association shows 28% of surveyed educators said the pandemic has made them more likely to retire early or leave the profession. KGOU has this story on one teacher who, despite his own battle with COVID-19 plans to return to the classroom.Ted Hartley, a teacher at Harding Fine Arts Academy in Oklahoma City decided to join the family business, teaching, after a 35-year-long career as a software engineer.

"Teaching is in my family's basic DNA, so when it came time to retire but not really stop working, I just said, well, I'll just go teach math, I like doing that,” Hartley said. “That was the year that COVID hit. You know, spring break my first year teaching, I stopped teaching. And it's been kind of hit and miss ever since.”

Hartley spoke to KGOU from a hospital bed as he dealt with complications of COVID-19.

My next door neighbor got a positive COVID test. And then two days later, I was having a hard time getting up and down the stairs. I went in for a COVID test on Friday that came back positive on Monday. But during that interim, I got sick and ended up in the emergency room,” Hartley said.

He had pneumonia, a fever and a cough — not necessarily serious to many people — but to Hartley, a kidney transplant recipient, the risk was high enough to warrant a trip to the ER. The breakthrough infection was unexpected; he says he’s been vaccinated and always masks in public to protect the vulnerable family members living with him.

I am in a unique position in that many of these kids could be my grandchildren. And so making that quick switch from being math teacher to grandpa at school happens in a second, and they get that,” Hartley said. “They know that they walk into my room, they need a math teacher, he's standing there. But if you need grandpa for a second, he's there too. That’s just grandpa doing what grandpa does.”

Hartley says his students come to him often to discuss the deaths of loved ones, parents and guardians losing their jobs, or dealing with depression. For him and other educators, teaching goes far beyond algebra.

That’s just grandpa doing what grandpa does,” Hartley said.

Hartley is looking forward to getting back to his students, but the pandemic has made some educators reconsider their careers. Burnout is very real. An analysis by the Tulsa World shows Oklahoma is facing its own crisis: this summer, there was a 38% increase year-over-year in summer retirements. This is on top of a years-long teacher shortage. Oklahoma has issued over 2,600 emergency teaching certifications since June.

Katherine Bishop is president of the Oklahoma Education Association.

We have over 600,000 students across our state that are sitting in classrooms today, without the prevention layer of the vaccine,” Bishop said. “Our districts’ hands have been tied through Senate Bill 658, to not be able to make local decisions for their schools in their communities.”

In Hartley’s district, students were given the choice to opt out of wearing masks, and he says less than 1% of students at his school have taken that option. At least 34 of the state’s public school districts have implemented mask mandates, with student opt-out rates ranging from marginal to more than 25%.

At one meeting of the Norman Public School Board, State Representative Merleyn Bell (D-Norman) spoke up about the position teachers are finding themselves in.

Every single day, I hear from folks all over town, especially teachers, who say, ‘I don't know what else to do, representative. I tried to voice my concerns, but they've always shut me down or dismissed me. I'm scared that if I say anything, I'll be punished,'" Bell said.

Representative Bell said she’s concerned frustrations from teaching through the pandemic will be the last straw for educators considering leaving the profession or the state. But Katherine Bishop had some words of encouragement for Oklahoma teachers.

Thank you. From the bottoms of our hearts, thank you,” Bishop said.

As for Hartley, he’s now out of the hospital and returning to his students, though he said he’ll continue to take every precaution to mitigate his risk of re-infection.

Beth reports on education topics for StateImpact Oklahoma.
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