For educators with underlying medical conditions or high-risk family members, the thought of returning to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic can be terrifying. Some teachers, like West Wendover High School history teacher Kathy Durham, are even making end-of-life plans. Below, in her own words, Durham, who is 56, tells ELLE.com why she’s drawing up a will before in-person classes resume this fall.
Remember what going back to school felt like as a kid? It was a fresh start. An exciting new beginning brimming with potential.
Teachers also get that giddy feeling before a new school year. During the summer, I take several weeks to rewrite my curriculums. I like to approach teaching like storytelling—what fun fact can I pull out of a textbook to get kids hooked? What current event can I tie in? Is there a popular song or book or movie I can incorporate?
I love planning for back to school. Or, at least I used to. This summer, instead of thinking about new outfits and new lesson plans, I’m writing my will.
I’ve been an educator in West Wendover, Nevada, for 21 years, teaching 11th grade U.S. history and 12th grade government. I oversee a broadcast journalism course and also coach the girl’s golf team.
Like most of the country, our high school shut down in March when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and classes moved online. I turned one room in my house into a studio room where I filmed lessons. We’re scheduled to start in-person classes again this fall, and the school board is holding a meeting this week to talk specifics. The plan right now is to have class four days a week. Half of my students will come in on Monday and Wednesday, and the other half will come in on Tuesday and Thursday. The students will do online classes the days they’re at home.
Stepping into a classroom used to give me a sense of purpose. Now it scares me. I want to teach and I want to build relationships with my kids, but I worry it’s going to become all about policing them—”Wear your mask!” “Don’t touch that!”—and trying to keep everyone safe while constantly listening for coughs and sneezes.
We’re told that if a kid appears to be sick to send them to the nurse’s office. If that kid tests positive, the entire class and everybody in contact with them will get sent home.
The parents I’ve spoken to don’t want to send their kids to school if there’s a chance of them getting sick, but at the same time, many of them have to go into work and can’t stay home to make sure their kids actually do the online work.
My biggest concern is my husband, Bob, who has a heart condition. When I do go back to school, we’ll have to keep our distance from each other. I’ll live in the basement of our home, and he’ll stay upstairs. We’ll use different dishes. We have two microwaves. I know it sounds silly, but you can’t be too careful.
Before the pandemic, it seemed too early to write my will. “I’ve got another 40 years before I need to do that!” I told myself. But now it seems imperative. I want to make sure all the necessary expenses are taken care of so that the burden doesn’t fall on our kids or on our 13 grandchildren to plan a funeral. The last thing I want is for them to have to start a GoFundMe account to bury me.
Have I thought about just quitting my teaching job? Sure, the thought has definitely crossed my mind. But I immediately shut that down. I’m anxious and angry about going back to school—but teaching is my passion and my purpose.
I know it’s complicated, and there’s no simple or right solution. But for the physical health of all teachers and students, we need to move to online classes this fall.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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