A Story About Paying Off Debt and the Obstacles Along the Way

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Is Teaching in the Time of Covid Worth the Risk?

Disclaimer: Before I launch into this post, I want to acknowledge that a lot has happened in the weeks since I last wrote something. There are crucial issues that need continued discussion: racial inequality, police violence, trans rights, and more. Before I broach any of these in any detail, I need more time to formulate my thoughts and figure out the best way to use this little platform. I don't want to write something and have it come across as just another thing checked off of some Good Ally To-Do List. In the meantime, I'm focusing on amplifying the blog posts, podcasts, books, art, and other creations of those who are addressing these matters head-on. I am also doing the slower and less visible work of discussing these issues with my family, donating when we can, educating myself, and paying close attention to the times when I start to feel defensive (because that's a personal red flag for me, signaling an opportunity to learn).

This is going to be one of those off-the-cuff posts that, by the time I'm done with it, may not make much sense or sound very pretty. But I haven't written anything since the end of May, and it's time to get back to the blog.

Since this pandemic started, there's been an endlessly available smorgasbord of COVID-19-Related Things You Can Worry About RIGHT NOW!, and I've indulged in many of them over the past few months: Will My Parents Stop Going To Parties?, How Long Will This Shutdown Last?, Is Takeout Safe?, Is it Okay To Run Outside?, Why Are Bars Opening?, Why Is Disney World Opening?, Will My Child Need Therapy Due To Bad Dad Jokes + Lack Of Socialization And How Much Should I Be Saving For That?, Are We The Only People Still Distancing?, Will I Get COVID At The Doctor's Office?, and Why Aren't People Wearing Masks?, among many others.

For the past few weeks, the thing that my partner and I have been most concerned about is whether he will be required to return to his classroom in August. Here in Arizona, we have the highest test positivity rate in the entire continental US (nearly 27%). The number of positive cases continues to increase (more than 4000 just today), and the death toll has doubled in the last month. But our school and school district plan to bring kids back to the classroom starting on August 17. Because students have the option of learning online instead (which we support, and which my own kid will be doing), my partner and his colleagues will likely be expected to pull double duty by teaching in-person and managing the online cohort, too (which we do not support). Meanwhile, there's no information about: social distancing requirements, whether teachers will have to pay for PPE, whether the school will be updating its ventilation system (many of our school's classrooms have no windows; in the ones that do, the windows do not open), or what happens if a kid or teacher gets sick (do entire classes quarantine for two weeks?) We do know that although students will be required to wear masks, there will be no testing.

In short: More work, less money, taking major risks every day.

Is It Worth The Risk?

We've had several difficult discussions about what we'll do if the school opens before we feel it's safe for him to go back. My partner is currently the family breadwinner. He brings in the full-time salary. His employer supplies our health insurance. My part-time job comes nowhere close to meeting our financial needs.

But at the same time, COVID-19 is slowly revealing how versatile and insidious it is. It's not "just" a respiratory infection that affects older adults. It's a multifaceted illness that can attack different parts of the body, and often in an unpredictable way. It can sicken people of all ages. People of all ages are getting very, very ill.

And where does it tend to transmit most effectively? Indoors... amongst groups of people... either from coughs or sneezes OR when the aerosolized virus spreads through activities such as talking and breathing.

We've decided that he will quit if school opens and he doesn't feel that going back is safe. We're not going to risk it. We'd rather struggle financially than run the risk of ending up in the hospital or our child losing a parent.

It shouldn't be this way. As a country, we should have spent the summer containing the virus using methods that are proven to work so that essential workers can operate in a lower-risk environment. Instead, thanks to incompetent/nonexistent leadership, the virus is now completely out of control in many places. That hasn't stopped schools (from preschool through college) from planning face-to-face fall sessions.

So Where Would This Put Us Financially?

We've been saving as much as possible since the pandemic started. Our emergency fund isn't where I would like it to be, but then again, where I would like it to be is one year of expenses - something that seemed completely over the top until, like, April, so that's not happening.

Still, we're in okay shape given the situation. Based on our current savings and expenses, and guesstimating the cost of ACA healthcare, I've calculated that we can live off our emergency fund and my income for approximately 6-7 months, assuming my job holds. After that, we could rely on credit cards. Not ideal, but we'd do it if we had to. My partner has been looking for other jobs and would of course continue to do so, so hopefully he'd find another position and it wouldn't come down to that.

But doing so has the potential to completely derail us financially. Only now, after three years of working very hard, are we starting to catch up on savings and retirement. Quitting would be a major setback from a money standpoint.

This Is Incredibly Stressful

To put it mildly.

Under normal circumstances, I'd feel more confident that those in charge will ultimately prioritize people over profits and make decisions designed to protect the public. But right now? No. I have absolutely no faith that the state government or the federal government is looking out for the people they're supposed to serve. Not after what's happened so far this year. Not after more than 130,000 people have needlessly died. Not after our governor has continuously refused to make any meaningful mandates to get this thing under control, even as our numbers have soared.

We want to protect our family, but clearly, nobody is going to assist us with that. We're on our own. Everyone in this country is on their own at this point. You're not a billionaire or a politician? Good. Fucking. Luck. Utterly depressing, considering that the only way we're going to manage this pandemic until a vaccine is available is to work together and look out for one another (as other countries have).

Fortysomething does not want to quit. We do not want to lose our income. We do not want to make that decision. We're losing sleep over it.

But we will do anything to keep our family physically safe and healthy.

If You Have Kids In School

One request: if you have school-age children (or even if you don't!), speak up to your representatives at all levels about the need to create a safe environment for children, teachers, and staff. By "creating a safe environment," I don't just mean wearing a mask in the classroom or buying the teacher an extra container of Clorox wipes or moving to an online platform. We can do those things, but they don't do much to address our current challenges (people dying in droves, parents not being able to return to the office, etc.) I mean working together as communities to (1) lower the numbers to the point where transmission risk is low and (2) establish vetted protocols (testing and contact tracing, anyone?) so that kids can actually return to school.

That's what it will take to get back to semi-normal life. Our government doesn't want to do these things, and people don't want to be inconvenienced any more than they already have been... and yet school workers are expected to be on campus, with kids, day in and day out, just praying they can get through an entire school year without contracting a potentially deadly illness and spreading it to the people they care about*.

We are not willing to roll the dice on that.

I acknowledge that even considering this as an option is an immense privilege. The fact that ANYONE has to risk their life because our country won't get it together is completely unacceptable.

*I'm focused on teachers here, but we need to be doing this for the sake of ALL WORKERS WHO ARE PUBLIC-FACING. 



  1. I had all of you in mind when we wrote to our district yesterday after we finally got our first news about the reopening plan. Next up is government, I guess?
    It's just absurd how bad all this is
    getting. Unbelievable.

    1. I think you are amazing for writing to your district to give feedback about the reopening plans. If enough parents speak up, they will listen.

      It is all so very absurd, and I continue to struggle to wrap my mind around it.

  2. The worth of it is a very broad question and answers will vary based on a persons situation. Overall I would say it's not worth it. Whatever strategies they implement to mitigate infection will be enacted poorly. Teachers should try to improvise by tutoring kids that will use this time to home school. If something like that is possible they should pursue it.

    1. Exactly... There are no *good* options here, but certain options are better than others. For instance, districts could encourage distance learning but also open schools to students who need to come in. Teachers could volunteer to work in-person (I know some who really, really want to go back) and receive additional hazard pay for taking that risk.

  3. If we prioritized education to begin with, this would be a different story. Our district is looking at split days but teachers will still be exposed to the same number of kids - the kids won't be. Not sure how that makes sense from a community health perspective. There are no good or right options which makes it more stressful.

  4. I'm glad you have a plan, but you're right. Schools are, once again, being asked to solve problems that aren't fixable by underfunded schools... Teachers shouldn't be risking their lives for this and families should have comprehensive support for the strain this puts on working parents. We have the privilege to have a nonworking parent at home as our regular life plan (thanks, frugality--and some debt), but like your e-fund, I don't like the idea of saying "well, I guess you're screwed..." to people who made a different life plan (or whose plans were thwarted or derailed).

    If the priority of the governments were to open schools, beauty salons would not be open right now and unemployment benefits would not be ending this month. Instead, we're told to open with zero supports or guidance...

  5. We're in the same boat. My fiance is a teacher. He had cancer, I'm high risk. There's just no sense in us risking our lives and as much as it'll hurt financially, he will be quitting. I know we're in a super privileged position to do this. It didn't have to be this way.

  6. I am terrified of what might happen to a teacher by putting them at risk by reopening schools (which is what our school district is planning to do). I also hate that you and your partner are being put in this situation. My teacher friend is having panic attacks (literally) thinking about the start of school and has talked to a couple psychologists and is planning on going on disability because the stress is debilitating at this point. I wonder if your partner has considered talking to a doctor to see they're eligible for some type of FMLA or disability leave (assuming that stress and/or anxiety is at play).

  7. I have teacher friends who are afraid to go back to school this fall. Parents have to decide this week if we're doing five days brick & mortar or distance learning. I'm in Florida and there's a big push to get the schools opened no matter what the numbers say. My kids are staying home. I'm sorry your family is in this predicament-- we already ask for way too much from our teachers.

  8. This is heartbreaking to read and also stirs up a lot of anger directed toward the officials elected to make these decisions. The perspective you bring is certainly not one I have seen much in the media and really seems ridiculous to expect educators to manage a classroom of students in-person while also keeping tabs on those that are remote-learning. I'm at a loss as to what legitimate basis the current administration is using to claim that kids aren't learning if they aren't physically in a classroom. Is remote-learning ideal? No. Is it temporary? Yes. A nationwide teacher strike action may be what is needed to get the attention of those in power.

    I am struggling with why it is so hard for a large portion of our population to suck it up and take one for the nation by staying home and being responsible citizens. This will eventually pass if everyone does their part. The incessant need that so many people have to send kids to school, go on cruises, eat in a packed restaurant, etc. during a pandemic is just mind boggling to me.

  9. Our oldest daughter is new to the workforce and focusing on jobs that offer remote work. It's such a shame that people have to choose between their health and their livelihood but here we are. It's another reason that financial independence is so important.

  10. If you're in the Phoenix metro area... has your partner considered seeing if they can acquire a decently paying private tutor job? I'd think among the wealthy in central Phoenix or Scottsdale or among the baseball players in Peoria or the Swift trucking family...someone might be looking for a teacher for their kids that only comes and teaches their kids and doesn't go out and about.
    A teacher I know in the northeast where I am now got this gig with a doctor's family- the doc doesn't want to send their 3 kids back to school, but wants their kids guided by someone.
    Wishing you luck in something working out well for your fam! Just found your blog, but I grew up in Phoenix and watching everything go down has me worrying about my (still in AZ) family sooo much, too.