Liz Bridges never thought she’d be a teacher. She never thought she’d love the job so much she would stay in the Boise School District for 25 years. And she never thought she would retire abruptly in the middle of a pandemic.
Bridges, who taught U.S. history and A.P. human geography at North Junior High School, left the district on Oct. 16 — days before her students returned to school in-person while Ada County was in the “red” for high risk of COVID-19 transmission.
She considers reopening at this point in the pandemic to be “actively spreading the disease.” And she wasn’t willing to put her health in jeopardy.
“I left the profession because I was driven to a line I would not cross,” Bridges, 61, wrote in an email. “I am not a saint, I am a person, and I will not sacrifice my life and my health to engage in teaching in an unhealthy and self-endangering situation.”
Bridges worked at North Junior High for more than two decades, teaching hundreds of students under multiple district leaders. She got a degree in geography, worked at the United Nations in Bangkok and was the general manager of a Boise restaurant before she turned to teaching, a career that would put her schedule more in sync with her son’s.
She loved it.
“Teaching children in the same community for decades puts you inside families and community in a way that no other profession does or can,” Bridges wrote. “My sense of self-identity expanded as a teacher, and my sense of responsibility, and I forgot, over time, that my first obligation is to myself.”
Boise allowed teachers to join its online school for the 2020-21 school year if they didn’t want to teach in-person. Bridges didn’t take that option. She didn’t think the district would bring students back to school this fall, particularly if Ada County was at a high risk for COVID-19 spread.
Her anxiety grew as she watched the board of trustees move toward reopening, debating every few weeks whether she’d be expected to teach in person. It was an “emotional rollercoaster,” Bridges said, watching others make decisions about her health.
“I finally decided that the decision is mine alone to make. That’s when I decided: I’m retiring,” Bridges said. “I don’t want to give anyone that power over my long-term health.”
Bridges is concerned about a lack of ventilation at North Junior High, a school originally built in 1936, and doesn’t think the school has enough space to keep students six feet apart during the school day. She worries fumes from disinfectants could be dangerous for students and teachers to inhale.
Principal Jeff Roberts says North has addressed ventilation and physical distancing in its pandemic operations plan. Students have staggered release from class in an effort to create distance in the hallways, and administrators removed extra furniture from classrooms to get 6 feet between desks.
To increase classroom ventilation, Roberts said teachers are keeping the windows in their room open as much as possible, and cranking up the heat to ward off the winter cold.
“We are going to sacrifice comfort for ventilation,” he said.
Some secondary Boise School District teachers put up plastic barriers or plexiglass shields around their desks as another layer of protection. EdNews reached out to those teachers during the first week of hybrid learning, but interview requests were restricted by the district.
Some of those structures violated the buildings’ fire codes, Roberts said. He’s asked staff to take them down or amend them. Roberts said that some teachers have told him they no longer feel they need to have those structures.
“We’re just trying to balance their level of comfort with having students in the building,” Roberts said. “With most of them, seeing students in the building — especially in hybrid — is a lot different than maybe what they feared before kids came in.”
The Boise School District saw a jump in COVID-19 cases after it allowed secondary students back to the classrooms. Since October 20th, at least 11 positive cases have been reported at North Junior High.
On Monday, doctors from two Boise hospitals said they continue to support the district’s hybrid learning schedule. But school nurses are calling for the district to shift back to online learning. Trustees will have a special meeting at 4 p.m. on Thursday to again discuss the pandemic operations.
Bridges feels misled by the district, and doesn’t think leaders adequately considered the concerns of teaching staff. She feels empowered by making the decision to stand up for her own health.
And she feels nervous for her peers who are teaching from classrooms with the windows open, and heat on, trying to navigate in-person learning during a pandemic.
“The uncertainty of that, and the pressure my peers are under, it’s unconscionable,” she said.