After the East Baton Rouge Parish school system announced on July 16 that it would reopen schools with at least some face-to-face instruction, Anita Augustus was flooded with phone calls from worried school employees.

“My throat was just raw,” Augustus recalled. “I’d been getting calls nonstop. They are scared.”

The outcry prompted the local chapter of the Association of Educators, over which Augustus serves as president, to hold a protest Wednesday in front of the district's School Board office. The other major teachers union in Baton Rouge, the local chapter of the Federation of Teachers, also participated.

Hours before the protest began, the school system called a retreat. It agreed it wouldn’t start in-person instruction until after Labor Day at earliest. Instead, for the first month of school, children are learning strictly virtually.

The day before, New Orleans public schools also shifted to 100% virtual instruction, at least initially. But most other Louisiana school districts are sticking with plans to reopen for in-person instruction for at least part of each week.

Anxiety among educators that reopening school buildings to children might expose them to the deadly coronavirus has proved a key barrier to restarting schools for the 2020-21 school year. School leaders worry that many educators will opt en masse to leave the classroom.

It’s unclear the degree to which that would happen. Some indicators suggest the opposite, that school employees are sticking with their jobs rather than leaving.

For instance, 1,070 Louisiana public school teachers retired between April and June this year compared with 1,434 during the same period last year, according to the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana. During the 12-month period that ended on June 30, some 2,461 teachers in the state retired compared to 2,697 during the same period the prior year.

Both Ascension and East Baton Rouge parish school districts reported fewer retirements through July of this year than they reported during the same period in 2019. In East Baton Rouge, far fewer teachers have resigned or taken leave so far this year compared with last year.

Augustine, however, said it's too early to conclude that teachers will stay.

“I know people personally … they have not done their (retirement) paperwork, but they’re out,” she said.

Angela Reams-Brown, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, said she too knows maybe 10 educators who are seriously considering retiring.

“You’ve got a lot waiting until the last minute, waiting to see just what happens,” said Reams-Brown.

Many school districts have been reaching out to employees throughout the summer, trying to get advance warning of mass defections.

In a recent survey, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system asked employees to say what they’d do under various reopening scenarios.

Of the more than 4,000 people who responded, almost 14% said they’d retire, resign or take leave if they were forced to teach in person with kids daily.

Augustus said that survey was not anonymous and some school employees answered in ways they thought their bosses wanted to hear, for fear of job repercussions.

“A lot of people were terrified to be truthful,” she said.

West Baton Rouge Parish schools last week announced it will open with daily face-to-face instruction for the lower grades. For grades seven to 12, the school district will offer just two or three days a week of in-person instruction, with virtual instruction the rest of the week.

Schools Superintendent Wes Watts said there were some concerns initially among employees about how the reopening plan would work, but after sitting down with employees at multiple meetings, he said those fears lessened. He said turnover this year is down from last year and schools are fully staffed to start the new year.

“We feel like we have protocols in place so that we can protect everyone,” Watts said.

In early July, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers conducted its own online survey and uncovered a lot of concern about reopening schools. Of the 8,500 school employees responding, 65% said they weren’t comfortable sending kids to school. Thirty-five percent said they are either older than 65 or have an underlying health condition.

Employees with underlying conditions are potentially eligible to take medical leave, rather than going so far as to retire or quit.

“The question I’m asked most is, ‘How do I take leave?’” Augustus said.

In the East Baton Rouge school employee survey, the “request leave” option was vastly more popular than retiring or resigning among those who were skittish about returning to in-person instruction.

Augustus said school employees interested in this option have to first take their allotted personal and sick leave before they can start taking medical leave.

“Most educators don’t have enough leave time to cover a semester,” she said.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.