Arizona Teachers Contractually Unable to Quit, Forced to Return to School Without Enough PPE

Dr. Nelson standing with student in graduation regalia

By Jessica Swarner

August 14, 2020

“I’ve got to decide between [students] and the health and welfare of my wife. And who in the hell deserves that kind of decision?”

Dr. Dave Nelson has been teaching for nearly 40 years. He also has a wife at home who has “faced death twice” from brain cancer. 

This fall, he faces a nearly impossible decision. 

“I met with my kids earlier today — virtually. I’m a 6-foot-1, 350-pound old football player, and I’m crying with these kids because this decision shouldn’t be forced on anybody,” he told The Copper Courier. “And I’ve got to decide between them and the health and welfare of my wife. And who in the hell deserves that kind of decision? Three people on our school board decided that I do.” 

Nelson currently teaches psychology and sociology to high schoolers in the J.O. Combs Unified School District, located in San Tan Valley. He is also a student council adviser, head tennis coach, and president of his district’s education association chapter. 

The district’s governing board voted Monday night to reopen its schools for in-person learning Monday, despite not meeting all of the state’s three COVID-19 benchmarks

RELATED: Hoffman Says Schools Ignoring Health Guidelines to Reopen Next Week Are Doing a ‘Disservice to Educators’

Tiffanie Carlson, a social studies department chair and the Combs education association’s vice president, is also grappling with being forced to return to campus while the pandemic is still taking lives. 

She also fears taking the virus home to her family. 

“I’m not even 40 yet, and I’m putting a will together,” she said. “That’s how serious this is.” 

Combs isn’t the only district to defy the state superintendent’s pleas for schools to follow their guidelines. Queen Creek Unified School District’s governing board voted Tuesday in favor of reopening next week. 

Jacob Frantz, a science teacher and head of that district’s education association chapter, said the community is not prepared for this decision’s consequences.

“We’re packing 30 kids into every classroom, and that’s our plan,” Frantz said. “And it’s a plan that’s going to have a body count.” 

Inability to Walk Away

Nelson and Carlson said they are aware of a handful of teachers who have already resigned, and more who are seriously considering it. 

But for some, walking away isn’t an option due to barriers in their contracts. 

To resign, teachers are expected to pay up to a few thousand dollars as a fee for ending the contract early. 

“Teachers don’t have $1,000 to pay. Most of us are living paycheck to paycheck. Some of us are single-income households to where we don’t have those extra funds,” Carlson said.

RELATED: Hoffman Sides With Educators, Suggests Pushing Back In-Person Learning Start Date

“They’re holding us hostage with money that we don’t have,” Nelson added. 

And teachers who rely on their job for health insurance would also face losing coverage during a pandemic. 

Frantz also mentioned teachers could risk losing their teaching certificates if the district doesn’t find someone to replace them quickly enough. 

And these barriers don’t even take into account the heartache teachers would feel from leaving their students. 

“I would hate to walk away from these students,” Carlson said. “I love these students with my whole heart.”

Unprepared to Try

Nelson, Carlson, and Frantz all expressed concerns over what they feel are inadequate preparations for classrooms to reopen Monday. 

When asked about what supplies they will receive, they were able to name some items like cleaning spray, but said they were unsure what others that are on backorder would show up in time. 

Nelson said he has a bottle of “some sort of blue liquid,” one shop towel, a thermometer, and a face mask that doesn’t fit – but he has been offered two others that he has to pick up. 

Frantz said he has a cleaning spray for his desk that is labeled “intended for bathroom use,” a bottle of hand sanitizer, and a face shield. 

RELATED: No Schools Are Ready to Reopen After Arizona Released Reopening Benchmarks

But other than that, responsibilities fall to the teachers for now. 

“We don’t even have proper PPE, the proper disinfecting chemicals and equipment to even perform wipedowns if we wanted to,” Nelson said. “So if any of that is going to happen, we’re going to pay for it out of our pockets.” 

And Frantz said his district’s emphasis on hand washing and cleaning surfaces isn’t helpful when the virus can be transferred through the air. 

While students will be required to wear masks during the day, unless they have a parental exemption, Frantz said he expects there will still be many chances for exposure. 

“Masks have been a constant struggle in these past two weeks that it’s just been teachers on campus,” he said. “They haven’t even been enforcing it very well among adults.” 

Added Responsibilities

While all three educators acknowledged they want to return to the classroom as much as anyone, it’s not going to be a “normal” environment – in part because teachers will have even more additional responsibilities. 

For example, in the Combs district, Nelson and Carlson said teachers will be expected to take each student’s temperature in the first period and send students with fevers to the nurse’s office. 

And while Queen Creek is utilizing a third-party service for its online courses, Combs is having its own teachers simultaneously handle distance learning. 

RELATED: As Public Schools Prep, Private Schools Are Already in Session

“So now we’re going to monitor for COVID symptoms, teach a number of kids in seats in front us, teach a number of kids on the virtual, try to manage and maintain the behavior expectations and the learning of the kids in the classroom, monitor the chat questions on the virtual learning, keep our social distancing in rooms that are 30 by 30 … attend all our meetings, answer all our emails, be available for parent-teacher conference phone calls … and tutoring after school,” Nelson listed. 

And with a number of substitute teachers having already resigned over the summer, Nelson said he doesn’t know who will be there to fill the gaps when something goes wrong. 

“I wonder what the quality of education is going to be when one or two of us die, and the rest of us aren’t coming to work,” he said. 

Feeling Unheard

Both Nelson and Frantz said they were “disappointed” in their boards’ decisions to reopen, especially because they didn’t feel teachers had a chance to voice their concerns. 

“They want us to show up here happy and excited and prepared to step in harm’s way for them when they’ve done absolutely nothing to support us,” Nelson said. 

Carlson said she has felt as if teachers are “just a number to them.”

“We want [reopening] to happen when it’s safe,” she said. “We’re not willing to put ourselves or our family members in jeopardy. We’re not willing to put our students in jeopardy.” 

RELATED: ‘What Will Happen if My Teacher Dies?’: Kids Ask Ducey Tough Questions on Schools Reopening

Frantz said some teachers in his district who reached out to the board received nothing but automatic reply emails addressed to parents. And when educators have received any response, it’s been dismissive. 

“As staff, whenever we’ve asked about [the state’s benchmarks], the message we’ve gotten back is it doesn’t really matter what the benchmarks were going to be,” he said. 

The educators pointed to Georgia as an example of a push for in-person learning gone awry. In one county alone, nearly 1,200 students, teachers, and staff had to be quarantined as of Thursday, and some schools have already closed again. 

“We all want to be back on campus. It’s just a question of what the consequences are,” Frantz said. “Because for Arizona in particular, we saw what happens if we reopen early and if we reopen unsafely. And we just want to make sure that that kind of tragedy doesn’t happen in our schools.”


  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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