Editor’s note: Through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting in depth on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.

Jan Roberts cleaned out her third grade classroom this month, packing 32 years of teaching into cardboard boxes.

Down came the motivational posters she’d made to remind her students that “mistakes are the way we learn.” Books once stacked against every wall were sorted for storage. Roberts donated the magnifying glasses, fossils and seashells she’d turned into a science corner. And the class pets — Reeses the guinea pig and Amigo the fish — would go home with her, along with every picture that her kids had drawn of them.

She tried not to cry as she went along, but when Roberts finally turned off the lights for the last time to an empty Room 15 at Oakridge Elementary, she couldn’t help it. At 54, she hadn’t planned on retiring. The coronavirus pandemic, though, and her school district’s plans to return to in-person classes this fall despite it, left her with few other options, she said.

“The thought of going back into the classroom to teach was just so incredibly stressful,” Roberts said. “I couldn’t risk making any of my students sick or getting sick myself.”

She’s one of at least 79 educators across Salt Lake County, where the number of virus cases has been the highest in Utah, who have either resigned or retired early because of concerns over COVID-19 in schools, according to data collected by The Salt Lake Tribune from each district. At least 16 of those resignations came in the past week as the first day of class approaches.

The teachers who are leaving say they’d rather pack up now than go back to the classroom this fall, where they fear not enough is being done by the state or local districts to protect them.

“We’re just being told to jump in like nothing is wrong,” Roberts said. “It’s not OK.”

Many who are resigning believe there will be outbreaks. Some have health conditions and weren’t given the option to work online. A few said they worry about the long-term impacts of getting the virus, both for themselves and their students.

Roberts has always thought of her classroom as a second home — filled with giant globes and lamps. But as she took it all down, she thought about how, if she stayed at her job there, she might bring the virus back to her first home, to her elderly father and young daughter.

The worst-hit district

One of five districts in Salt Lake County, Granite School District is losing more than half the educators countywide who are leaving due to the virus. It reported the highest number of resignations, with 32 teachers quitting, as well as the highest total of retirements, with 12, including Roberts.

The exodus is likely due to how its schools will reopen.

Unlike neighboring districts, most students at Granite will return to in-person instruction at school four days a week, largely like normal. And there are few opportunities for teachers to instruct solely online, especially at middle and high schools.

At the same time, the ZIP codes within Granite had the highest percentage of positive COVID tests during the first week of August — at 11.31% — of the districts in Salt Lake County, narrowly surpassing even Salt Lake City School District, at 11.28%.

Ben Horsley, the spokesman for Granite, said administrators will continue to monitor those rates. But “unless something significant occurs that would detract from our ability to open in that fashion,” he added, “I don’t anticipate any changes.”

More than 500 teachers protested against that earlier this month, saying the plan puts them at risk and doesn’t take into account national health recommendations for social distancing. Standing outside a school board meeting in masks, they held signs that asked: “When students and teachers get sick and die, will you be able to sleep at night?”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Hundreds of Granite School District teachers gather at the district office on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, to protest plans for reopening, which will allow students back into the classroom, like normal.
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It was the largest rally of any that have come in Utah since Gov. Gary Herbert encouraged schools to reopen this month and left the decisions on how to do so to local districts. Most other districts in the county and the state are offering a hybrid approach, mixing online and in-person instruction.

The teachers in Granite have said they’d prefer that, but the school board has not considered an adjustment. Instead, the district has encouraged everyone to wear masks in schools, as mandated by the state, and made Fridays a digital day for everyone.

The Granite Education Association, the teachers union for the district, points to that unwillingness to change as the reason many educators are leaving.

“It’s become clear that there’s no intention with the Granite school board to do anything different,” said Michael McDonough, president of the association. “But there are teachers who don’t want that level of risk. And they have no other choice but to get out.”

The union surveyed its members last week, and of the 1,400 educators who responded, 69% said they didn’t feel safe under the reopening plan. McDonough fears even more will resign in the next two weeks as schools hold staff meetings and prepare for students to return.

Even though kids are less likely than adults to get seriously sick from the coronavirus, they can still spread it. And teachers are generally more at risk for complications from the disease because of age or health conditions. As a compromise with the association, Granite opened up an extra window this summer for older teachers to retire without breaking their contracts, if they didn’t feel comfortable returning. Roberts decided to leave under that provision.

“I hate to leave the profession I love. I’m full of grief and heartache,” she said. “The district, though, just isn’t listening to us and it isn’t listening to science. I worry for the teachers who are still there.”

Meanwhile, younger teachers who haven’t worked enough years to retire and decided to resign were fined $1,000, which is typical in the state, if they left after July 13. Teachers usually have to indicate by a strict deadline each spring if they’ll return for the next year so districts know how many people they need to hire. It’s considered a breach of contract if an educator resigns after that.

Janessa, who resigned from Granite this month after a few years in the classroom, said she was charged the fine but didn’t know what else to do. The Tribune verified her employment and agreed to identify her only by her first name for privacy as she looks for another job.

She said she had to decide in January, under her contract, if she would return this fall — well before the pandemic spread here. She has an autoimmune disease that could mean getting seriously sick if she caught the coronavirus. But, she said, she wasn’t offered one of the few online positions with the district. And she was supposed to have 32 kids in person in her class this fall.

“There’s got to be a better way or a slower way to ease ourselves back in rather than full steam ahead,” she said. “It’s not about not wanting to educate.”

Losing experienced educators

The Tribune focused its data collection on Salt Lake County, where the number of cases of the virus has remained high.

In other areas of Utah, especially rural districts, teachers report being less worried about returning to school because COVID-19 hasn’t been as widespread, said Mike Kelley, spokesman for the Utah Education Association. “It’s the districts where the virus rate is up and they’ve chosen a model that requires teachers to be in school,” he said, “where you see the serious concern.”

Canyons School District, which includes much of the south end of the Salt Lake Valley, follows Granite with the next highest number of teachers stepping down, with 29. Though, counting other staff positions, it’s actually losing 46 employees total. That includes an additional two administrators, three school psychologists and 12 educational support staff, said spokesman Jeff Haney; he said not all of those were COVD-related.

He declined to comment on the reasons for those departures but did note that Canyons temporarily waived the contract penalty for those who resigned. The district will return largely with in-person classes, though there are options for online learning.

Murray School District, meanwhile, which is the smallest in the county, had six teachers leave due to the coronavirus; five were retirements. It’s also doing a hybrid model of instruction.

The two other districts — Salt Lake City and Jordan — though, both reported zero resignations and retirements. Jordan has two teachers taking yearlong leaves of absence.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

The difference there, Kelley believes, is again based on the plans for reopening. Classes in Salt Lake City School District, for instance, will start entirely online this fall until cases of the virus decline. He said a lot of educators have felt safer under that model. And several are leaving their districts to try to get jobs there. (The UEA has been pushing for most schools in the state to start remotely.)

Likewise, at Jordan School District, students and teachers will return with a mix of online and in-person classes. And the more than 300 educators who requested to instruct remotely for health reasons have been accommodated, said district spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf. They’ve been encouraging families who can to consider digital learning.

Kelley said that’s promising and shows that districts can work with their staff on a plan that works for everyone — even in areas impacted the worst by the virus.

It means, though, that the other three districts in the county that aren’t doing so account for a combined loss of nearly 80 teachers.

That may not seem like a large number, Kelley said, when there are 31,000 teachers in the state. But it exacerbates an existing teacher shortage of about 1,600 professionals in Utah. That’s already created larger class sizes and more work for educators.

Additionally, Kelly worries that those who have been in the classroom the longest are the ones who are most at risk in the pandemic and the ones stepping down. Utah schools are losing their most experienced educators, like Roberts, who taught for more than three decades.

“Teachers who are very talented are leaving,” Kelley added, “because they don’t feel their districts are doing enough.”

One of those is Kris, who is older and has underlying health conditions. She left Granite School District on Wednesday, waiting to see if the plans would be adjusted to accommodate her need to stay home. The Tribune confirmed her employment and agreed to use only her first name for privacy as she applies for other jobs.

At the beginning of the pandemic, she said, when classes were moved online, teachers were described as heroes. And suddenly switching to digital instruction was some of the hardest work she’s done. Now, though, she feels expected to sacrifice her health for the job. And she feels people view her as a villain for not wanting to go back in person and help kids.

But she’s measured the distance between her desks, and there’s no way to get the recommended 6 feet between them. After years of working with young kids, she knows, too, it’s going to be difficult to get them to keep masks on all day. An outbreak at school, she believes, is nearly certain.

“I want to be able to teach. I love what I do,” she said. “I just didn’t feel like my health was going to be OK.”

She paused, trying not to cry. “I had to leave for me.”

‘Wrestling with it every day’

The teachers who spoke with The Tribune about leaving all repeated the same thing: It was the most difficult decision they’ve made.

None of them wanted to retire or resign. But none of them wanted to risk getting sick, for their students, for themselves or for their own families at home.

Roberts said it felt like the state did more this spring, when it shut down schools, than it’s doing now to protect teachers returning this fall, even as there’s wider spread of the virus. Kris said if her district was willing to make even slight adjustments to how many kids would be in the classroom at one time, she’d feel better.

Without more effort to keep them safe, they all say, their only choice is to leave.

“This isn’t the way I wanted to go out,” Roberts said. “I’m still wrestling with it every day. I’ve got a lot of good teaching years left in me.”

She hopes that she might be able to come back, maybe in a year, when it’s safer. For now, she’s packed the treehouse in her backyard full of the boxes from her third grade classroom.

If you have ideas for coverage of teachers, students and solutions to the challenges education faces during the coronavirus pandemic, please email ctanner@sltrib.com.