Christian Herr is only 35, but he has been on medication ever since he suffered a heart attack in his classroom nine years ago. His cardiologist is clear: Herr’s condition puts him at risk of dangerous complications if he contracts the novel coronavirus.

So two months after his school closed, and with next school year on the horizon, Herr, a sixth-grade science teacher in the District, wonders: Can he go back when classrooms reopen? Will he be safe? How will he know?

School districts across the country are sharing rough drafts of what the fall could look like. They are under increasing pressure, from parents and politicians, for those plans to include at least some in-person learning.

But teachers, especially ones who are older or medically compromised, worry those plans do too little to protect them.

The plans are also just unrealistic, teachers say. They can’t envision students maintaining social distance, keeping masks on or walking in the same directions in hallways, all things health officials are recommending. Even before the pandemic, teachers said, their schools struggled to keep ample soap and water running in the bathrooms.

“When I hear about keeping students socially distant, I just kind of laugh at that,” said Crysta Weitekamp, a 47-year-old special education teacher at Southeast High School in Springfield, Ill., who has asthma. “They’re social creatures.”

So, teachers say, they’re anxious about returning. But they’re also anxious about what happens to their job if they refuse.

“It does make me nervous to say no,” said Lara, a high school teacher at a Los Angeles charter school who is immunocompromised. (Worried about her job, she spoke on the condition that she be identified by only her first name.) “Of course schools need to reopen, but at what point are you being sacrificed?”

A pressing problem

For all the plans to reopen schools, from masked kids to staggered schedules to half-empty buses, few address what to do with at-risk teachers. But one strong advocate of a return to normalcy this fall has at least brought it up: President Trump said that schools “should be opened ASAP” and that older teachers might just need to stay home.

The American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, has an idea for making that happen: It recommends school districts offer early retirement incentives to older teachers, a controversial proposal that has long been pushed by some education reformers — and dismissed by teachers unions as a way to drive down labor costs.

John P. Bailey, co-author of the American Enterprise study, said this is an unprecedented scenario and that the plan would protect older teachers. Given the economy, he is unsure how many teachers would even want this option; districts should also find new, less risky roles for those teachers. But retirement incentives are worth exploring, he said.

Nearly 18 percent of teachers are 55 and older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. If teachers retire in big numbers, that could exacerbate a national teacher shortage, particularly in rural areas.

“They are being squeezed on both ends,” Bailey said of school districts. “They are having these teachers who cannot come to school. And they are also having to find teachers who are able to come to school.” 

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, told teachers to “scream bloody murder” if their districts attempt to reopen against health guidelines. But as pressure builds for an in-person fall, teachers and unions say they want to be part of the discussion so they can ensure that reopening is driven by science, not economics.

“There is a lot of categories of people who we should be concerned about in the absence of a vaccine and in the absence of very aggressive testing,” Weingarten said. “The notion that it’s just affecting people 65 and older is wrong.”

School leaders across the country are proposing alternatives. One Idaho school that has already reopened is allowing teachers to lead classes remotely from home with substitute teachers supervising the physical classrooms, according to Education Week.

In Washington, Paul Kihn, the District’s deputy mayor for education, called figuring out how to staff school in the fall a “jigsaw puzzle.” The pieces of that puzzle include teachers who are considered high-risk, teachers who live with someone who is high-risk and teachers who have children on a different school schedule. The District’s health guidelines call for teachers who are considered high-risk to receive medical clearance before returning to the classrooms.

“This is an extraordinarily complex undertaking for each school community,” Kihn said. “We have a fairly good understanding of the concerns that families, parents and school staff have about returning to school buildings. We also understand that our primary job is to ensure safety.” 

Kihn said the school district is exploring plans to protect at-risk teachers. One factor, he said, is that many students won’t attend in-person classes because they have a medical condition or live with someone considered high-risk. Teachers who must remain home may be able to teach those children virtually. And like many districts, D.C. is considering having students report to school for in-person learning some days and stay home on others, to allow for more social distancing on campuses. At-risk teachers may be given a greater share of distance-learning.

Eric Williams, superintendent of Loudoun County Schools and a member of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) Education Work Group, said reopening can happen only if school districts are entirely transparent with their teachers and staff. Opening up won’t happen unless there are good plans in place “so staff and parents won’t have anxiety about returning,” he said. “We are committing to making decisions based on conditions, not time. It’s about data, not dates.”

Front-line workers

With so many unknowns about how long the pandemic will extend, teachers — including younger and healthy ones — question whether schools can safely pull off a plan.

Herr’s 33-year-old wife, for example, is a librarian at a D.C. Public Schools campus. She is healthy, he said, but she worries her daily interactions with children could endanger Herr.

“These are kids, and they are unpredictable, and we can set up as many structures and guidelines as we want, and stuff is going to fall through the cracks, and kids will not always follow the rules,” Herr said. “The consequences of that are really dire.”

Teachers say the safe reopening of schools relies on families following the health guidance. If someone in a household is ill, school staff said they must trust that the family won’t send their kids to school. But job pressure often forces parents to send their kids to school sick, and teachers said they don’t believe that will change.

“I want to be back in school with students, badly,” said Zach Carroll, a middle school teacher in the District. “But would I feel safe? Not at all.”

Teachers aren’t the only school-based staff worrying about returning. Paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers and security guards tend to skew older. In D.C. Public Schools, 2 percent of teachers are 65 and older, according to city data. But 6 percent of school-based staff are 65 and older.

Robert Alston Jr., the in-school suspension coordinator at Coolidge High in Northwest Washington, is the leader of the union that represents school support staff. He’s 51 and has Type 2 diabetes. When a fight breaks out at his school, he’s the person called to help break it up. When a teenager at his school is struggling or has an outburst, he often rubs their backs, soothes them, ensures they are okay. He wonders how aides assigned to help students with special education needs would continue their work under these health guidelines.

“We talk about front-line workers, but do they really look at us — support staff in schools?” Alston asked. “We have people who are crying, kids who are bleeding, kids who need a hug, kids who need extra support.”

Alston said support staff are in this profession for the long run. So whatever schools plan for the fall, they need to figure how to accommodate him and his colleagues.

“We are the lowest-paid people in schools,” Alston said. “We don’t have enough money to retire.”