A Teacher Weighs Her Options

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S1: Working as an elementary school teacher from home, it’s taking a toll on Nancy Shively, and I’m not just talking about an emotional toll, I’m talking about a physical toll. You can see it in her living room.

S2: Oh, man. I’ve got tubs piled up and I’ve got boxes of regular, like desks, supplies and my coffeemaker and all that.

S1: Nancy teaches special ed mostly works the second and third graders. She lives just outside Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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S2: I used to tell people I live halfway between the Pioneer woman and Garth Brooks, but Brooks moved back to Nashville. So that room that I love, I love.

S3: What would you normally be doing around this time of year?

S2: I would have already gotten the key to my classroom and I would be up there trying to figure out how to set my desks up. You know, I’d be setting up the bulletin boards.

S3: Of course, this fall is going to be a little different with teachers like Nancy wondering if the coronavirus is waiting for them back in the classroom.

S1: You can hear, Nancy calculating these trade offs in her head whenever she talks because she knows how essential being physically present is for her kids, especially after experimenting with remote learning in the spring.

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S2: We’re in a rural area, so a lot of kids don’t have Internet connectivity, or if they do, maybe the only device they have is a parent’s phone. And so, yeah, it makes it really hard, especially when you’re working with special needs kids. There was one little girl that even her their cell phone service wasn’t that great. There was a lot of cutting out. And that’s what made it difficult.

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S1: It sounds like in a lot of ways you’d like to go back to school.

S2: Absolutely. Yeah, I would. You form relationships with the kids and with your coworkers and.

S1: Yeah, I miss that, Nancy. School district, it’s set to reopen in less than two weeks, full time in person. You said normally you’d have your key by now, but you haven’t gone back yet. Are you avoiding it?

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S2: No, I don’t think so. I’m just I’m just I’m still not sure if I’m going back or not. That’s.

S4: I need to, you know, make a firm decision on that.

S3: Today on the show, Nancy’s choice, a lot of teachers feel like they’re facing the same grim decision about school this fall. But for Nancy, her decision, it isn’t just personal, it’s political.

S5: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: To understand Nancy’s reluctance to decide about school this year, you need to know how Nancy’s thinking has evolved over just the last few months as she’s watched the coronavirus spread. Like the majority of people in Oklahoma, Nancy voted for President Trump in 2016. She says she did it reluctantly. Back then, her main concern was abortion.

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S2: My faith tradition teaches that life is sacred. All life is sacred. Human beings are made in the image of God and deserve respect. And whether they’re an infant in the in the womb or whether they’re a 90 year old grandmother, you know. So those issues have always been important to me. But I’m I’m looking around and I’m seeing people dying everywhere that didn’t have to die. And because I am pro-life, that makes me angry.

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S1: You know, Nancy’s anger has actually been growing for a couple of years. She’s a lifelong Republican, but she started speaking out because she was worried about the condition of Oklahoma’s schools for a long time. Her state ranked second to last in terms of teacher salaries. It didn’t seem fair. So Nancy mobilized with some colleagues.

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S2: Twenty eighteen. We had a teacher walkout in Oklahoma, which is kind of our version of a strike use a nine day walkout. Yeah. And so I went down to the Capitals some of those days and watched my Republican legislators from my district literally hiding from the teachers because they didn’t want to talk to us. On the other hand, the Democratic legislators were perfectly happy to talk to us and gave us some really good advice. And, you know, and I’m and so I’m watching these guys and I’m like, this is not the Republican Party I grew up with. I rationalized to myself that I could stay in the Republican Party and cause trouble that way. But then when the virus, the virus hit and people were actually dying and President Trump is doing nothing, I thought, I cannot stay in this party anymore. It’s the party I knew is gone. So clearly I remember clearly I was sitting there watching one of those press conferences and I had my iPad out and I thought, I wonder if I can change my registration online. And I looked it up.

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S1: And during a President Trump press conference.

S2: Yeah. And so I did it because of Oklahoma State laws. It’s not effective until the end of August. But yeah, I changed it to independent and I might still change it to Democrat. I don’t know. But that was a big step for a lifelong Republican.

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S1: Yeah. I mean, I imagine and you you wrote this op ed for USA Today where you really clearly laid out, first of all, that you’re a teacher. Second of all, that you are a Trump voter who now thinks that was a huge mistake, one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made in my life.

S2: That’s right up there.

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S1: Did you hear from any friends or colleagues after that article came out sort of saying, I didn’t expect this or I want to talk to you about this?

S2: I think it got out in town because it’s a small town. And, you know, for example, my husband works for the town and he’s a mechanic. And one of my headlights had gone out and I wasn’t aware of it. And I had been driving around town and and and my husband came home and said, oh, so-and-so said, your headlights out. I’m like, What? That’s how small the town is. Yeah. So I’m pretty sure it got around. I you know, I talked about it on my Facebook page. What do people say there? There were a few on there that were like, thank you for being a teacher. Thank you for what you’re doing. And then there were the majority of them were negative.

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S1: Yeah. Because it’s so interesting, like I think of you. As being on the like straddling this border, do you think about how to get these two very different worlds to talk to each other and if there’s a way to kind of get them to share a perspective?

S2: One of the things I have loved about this whole, you know, the Republican voters against Trump and the Lincoln Project and all those, it is that Republicans and Democrats are actually talking to each other. And that hasn’t happened in a really long time. And I’m really enjoying that that space, although I have gotten a whole lot of negative feedback from the left about my article, which surprised me. I expected to get it from the Trump contingent, but now it’s almost exclusively from the left.

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S1: What are they saying?

S2: They’re saying it was perfectly clear in 2016 and you voted for him anyway. They say, well, so you are OK with babies in cages and blah, blah, blah, blah, and you didn’t clue in until it affected you personally. And there is a grain of truth to that, but they’re really mean about it online. So I just try to let it roll off my back.

S1: Nancy, let’s all this roll off her back because she’s got plenty of other, more vexing problems on her mind. Lately, she’s been thinking a lot about her students. What are the kids like at the school?

S2: You teach that they’re just normal kids with a Title one school. So a big chunk of our kids qualify for free lunch, reduced lunch. So there’s a lot of poverty in rural America has been decimated by methamphetamines and other addictions. So there’s that problem. The social issues have not been addressed for so long. And the kids get to school and they haven’t had the kind of socialization they haven’t had. They haven’t been read to they you know, they’re missing all kinds of things because of their poverty or because their parents, you know, aren’t there for them and in ways that they should be. And so they get to school and they’ve got all these deficits to start off with. And it’s not just Oklahoma, although it’s really bad here. It’s the entire country.

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S1: So you said that you’re having trouble deciding whether you’re going to go back to school this year. What makes you worried in particular when you think about walking into that classroom, putting up stuff on the bulletin board?

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S2: You know, on paper, my set up would be kind of ideal because I only have a few kids in my room at a time. And it’s not like I’m in a classroom with twenty plus kids all day long. They come in and they go out. But I have some underlying health conditions. I’m over 60, I’m overweight and none of that is going to. Bode well if I catch coronavirus and. So my school district is now said when we start back that they will start back with masks, like I initially heard, that we weren’t, but they are going to. But yet, you know, the more they learn about it being airborne, there’s not any kind of air filtration in the school. And from what I understand right now, the kids are all going to be eating lunch together like they always do. And it just seems very risky to me.

S1: When did you start getting worried about covid-19? Like, were you worried from the beginning when stuff started shutting down or was there a different moment for you?

S2: Well, it’s funny because, you know, when I first started talking about it back in February or when I first became aware, I think it’s probably back in the January 1st of February. And, you know, I’ve been around for the swine flu and the bird flu and, you know, none of which really impacted me. I think I had H1N1 that year. But as a teacher, I imagine you’re kind of used to like stuff spreads like you are because kids are so gross. You have no idea.

S1: Oh, I have to. I have an idea.

S2: Oh, well, then you do. Yeah. So here I’m on a normal day. I’m using, you know, Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer and all that. That just comes with the job. You know, in a small town like mine, we’re kind of the germ stewpot for the community. You know, if it gets going in full, it’s gone everywhere else, too. And so at first I was like, yeah, OK, this is another one of those. It’ll be all right. It’ll come. It’ll go. And then I actually my daughter had clued into it faster than I did. And I had a feeling when we let out for spring break that I might not be coming back.

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S1: But that was in New York City where we had spring break coming. And then all of a sudden it was like, you know what? Why don’t you just stay?

S2: And, you know, I feel so bad for the parents. My my kids are all grown. And and I had quite a few years as a single mom. I don’t know what I would have done because I would have had to work. So, you know, what do you do with your kids? It’s just a really difficult situation all around.

S1: Yeah. So what is the plan in your town for how you come back and do school? Have you seen it?

S2: Yes. They finally put one up a couple of days ago. Oklahoma has put a color coded map of my county. Depending on what the virus activity is in your county, your county will be colored yellow or red or whatever. And so my school district has taken that and they’re going to implement protocols based on whatever that is at the time. So right now we’re at a yellow. So that means everybody’s going to be wearing masks.

S1: And the idea is you’ll be back in the classroom five days a week. Yes. HUF when will they clean? I guess after school, does that feel like enough to you, like it’s protective? No, it doesn’t.

S2: And with it being as airborne as it is and knowing kids the way I do, I just don’t see how we’re going to avoid outbreaks in schools. I just don’t.

S1: Is there any talk about what the school would do if a kid or a teacher tested positive?

S2: The information I got back in June was that if there were one or two cases, they wouldn’t close a building or one or two cases. But that if I think it was more than that, then they would close the building. But the way this thing spreads so quickly, one or two cases could multiply into 50 in nothing flat. So that’s a huge concern.

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S1: I can hear that you’re scared that you’re like just thinking about this in your mind because the virus is very predictable.

S2: We’ve seen what it’s done. You know, the doctors and the scientists. You told the states, you know, you need help, open slowly. And this is why. And they were pretty much ignored. And now we have raging outbreaks in Arizona, where my sister lives in Texas. And, you know, and our governor isn’t being proactive at all. He doesn’t want to do a mask mandate, although Tulsa and I think Oklahoma City have done their own. So there’s that failure of leadership, and I don’t know why people think that Oklahoma would be exempt from what’s going on in Arizona or Texas.

S1: Well, let’s talk about the school year a little bit, because as a parent, I’m thinking about this like not just what happens if a kid gets sick, but just imagining being in a classroom and what happens there.

S2: Like you said, kids are going to be required to wear masks in the classroom, teachers to well, they’re going to need to be wearing masks when they’re out, amongst other classes than their own. I know some teachers have said they don’t want their kids wearing masks inside the classrooms.

S1: They don’t want that. Yeah, why?

S2: Well, like I said, the town is full of a lot of people who think the whole mask thing is a big hoax. And some of them are teachers.

S1: Well, they were required to be six feet apart.

S2: There’s no way you can’t do that. The classrooms are too small. There’s like 25 kids in a class. And the other thing is, especially in a low income area where parents are working, but that what they’re calling now essential jobs. The parents don’t have college degrees and they’re they’re working minimum wage or slightly above jobs. They get penalized if they stay home with a sick kid. So it is very common for kids to come to school sick in a normal year.

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S1: So if a kid comes into your classroom sick, are you empowered to say, listen, not today, you know, maybe come back tomorrow when you’re feeling better next week?

S2: No, I have no power. I would send them to the office. And then if the nurse was in the building and that’s another thing. We have two nurses in our school district for twenty four hundred kids in five buildings. And I’m sure there’s no funds to buy, not to hire anymore.

S1: I mean that it’s funny, that part that you mentioned about how some teachers don’t want the kids wearing masks. And it raises this question about like who makes the rules and whose rules are they?

S2: Well, here’s the thing, the school districts are coming up with plans, but by and large, those are plans for the students and the parents. There’s very little plans for the teachers. What happens if if you get exposed and have to stay out of school for two weeks, do you have to eat up all your sick leave? There’s just so much unknown. The Oklahoma City public schools have decided to have the first nine weeks, which first quarter of school starting out online. I think Tulsa is about to make that decision as well.

S1: Are you sort of hoping that that rolls into your district, too?

S2: Yeah, I am. But the thing is, even if we start out, I have to sign a contract for the entire year. So I would be fine if we started out with virtual, but what happens when they decide to reopen again, you know, and they want me to go back in the classroom and I’m bound to a contract?

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S1: And if you just didn’t show up, what would happen then?

S2: I don’t know, probably nothing. I don’t know, but I wouldn’t want to do that. That’s not fair to the kids. That’s not fair to the school district. If I if I don’t think I can, I can do it medically, then I need to decide now and let them know so they can get somebody and who can. There’s so many teachers that have medical issues, autoimmune diseases in particular, that administrations don’t know anything about because they’re kind of invisible diseases. And I just have this feeling if they force everybody back into the classroom, you know, we’ve all been kind of waiting to see how this is going to go. I think it’s going to be a lot of resignations are going to have a lot of vacancies to fill. We don’t have enough substitute teachers to begin with. So what are they going to do when a teacher comes down with it and is out for weeks?

S1: Is there any talk about hazard pay for people like you?

S2: Oh, heavens, no. That would be lovely. But that’s not going to happen.

S1: So I know that you said you’re expected to go back and and start getting ready in the next week, how are you going to make this decision?

S2: Well, my kids, particularly my daughters, have asked me not to go back. You know, like I said, I’ve got some some factors that would make it really bad. And I lost my own mother in my early 30s. And that’s the age where my daughters are right now. And I don’t want to put them through that. You know, I don’t want to die either, but I don’t want that for them either. So I think it’s going to have to come down to, you know. Choosing to protect myself for my kids sake. Or going back to school for my students, I think it’s it’s it’s a ridiculous position to be in. And it comes, in my opinion, from a failure of leadership from the president who abdicated his responsibility in dealing with this in the first place, so he passes it down to the states, some of which did a good job, some of which, like Oklahoma, did a crappy job. And so here we have the virus spreading everywhere because people wouldn’t listen. And then if the governors pass the book down to the to the local jurisdictions and then down to the school, it’s like everybody’s pushing the consequences of these decisions down the road, kicking the can down the road farther and farther. Well, the one place that it absolutely has to stop is with teachers and children. And I’m not willing to take the consequences for our failed leadership by going into a school in a situation I know is not going to be safe.

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S3: Nancy Shively, thank you so much for joining me. Good luck this year. It’s my pleasure. Thank you. Nancy Shively is a teacher in Oklahoma. Since we recorded this interview, Nancy told us she’s made her decision about going back to school. She’s planning to announce her resignation. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Jason de Leon, Danielle Hewitt and Mary Wilson. We’ve got a little help from Daniel Ives. We are led by Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.