The Florida Teacher Who Didn’t Want to Cause People to Die

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.We asked people who quit in 2020 how and why they did it. You can read more about the project and find every story here. Got your own quitting tale? Send us an email.

Barbara McLain, 39
Started: August 3, 2015Quit: July 30, 2020Salary: $56,000 per year
As told to Matt Cohen

It absolutely was the failure in government to handle the pandemic that led to me quitting my job. The pandemic was looking better in Florida early June. Then that number started to rise, and it started looking really, really bad, really quickly. And then Donald Trump tweeted. He tweeted, “Schools must open now.” Within hours, our governor followed up with an executive order mandating that all brick-and-mortar school buildings open for classes five days a week, or else they’ll lose their state funding.
That was my first inkling that I may not go back in the classroom, although at that point, because I’m at a private school, I wasn’t sure how impacted we would be. Our local school district stands to lose $86 million. But at our private school we didn’t know if we were taking any state funding at all. I found out later that we were. Although my school wasn’t going to be as financially impacted to the degree that the public school system is, because we’re just one little school, every dollar counts. I watched this evolve and watched our local school district just wring their hands. Everybody said, “I don’t want to do this, but there’s nothing we can do.”
It’s a really tough position to be in. Everybody who is saying, “I’m not going to do this,” is essentially risking their jobs and their family’s livelihood and so few people can do that. It’s just not a reasonable risk that most people can take. Our superintendent cried in our planning meeting and said, “This is not my personal opinion, I’m just doing my job, writing a plan that will get approved by the state.” Ultimately our local school district pushed back the school start date by three weeks but said that the reason for doing that was primarily to buy some time, in hopes that something might change that would allow schools to open remotely. But now it’s looking like that’s not going to happen. Our commissioner of education, Richard Corcoran, has really doubled down on reopening schools. He even told schools that just because you have a case of coronavirus in your school doesn’t mean you should shut down.
The biggest issue for me was my family’s health. My daughter has asthma and my in-laws are in their 70s—we’re conscious of that every day because my husband works with his father. So we were really worried about spreading the virus in our house. No matter how many safety precautions they take in our school building, we cannot control what these students and their families are doing outside of school hours. But it also felt like a moral crisis. I didn’t want to be part of the spread of this virus. I don’t want any part in causing people to die, which I think is going happen because of the decision to open schools. Even in moments where I was like, “Well, maybe I won’t get sick. Maybe I won’t pass it to my loved ones,” I felt like I was wishing for it to be someone else with terrible luck. And I really couldn’t square that, either.
There were other things that led to my decision. The school said they were not going to supply teachers with PPE. They said we have to buy our own. As for cleaning classrooms, they just said, “Well you’ve got to figure out how to get your classroom wiped down in between classes.” I thought, “I can’t do this.”
I hoped that I would feel relief. On one hand, I did because I knew my family would be safe. We would keep the kids home, and I could be home and we can wait this thing out. But then there was the anxiety over money. I worried that I actually miscalculated our funds. I got nervous about what this would mean for my career. If I decide that I do want to return to the classroom next year, will they say no? Those sorts of worries went through my head. So it was a mixed bag. My husband, who has a ton of faith in me, talked about this idea I had of starting a tutoring business and helping kids with writing. Once I decided I wasn’t going back, he was ready to start planning, like, “Let’s start building your website right now.” It’s nice to have somebody who believes in me.
But overall it didn’t feel like going out in a blaze of glory. It was a hard decision. And it’s still hard. I felt some doubt, but I feel really secure in the decision now that I’ve had a little bit of time. I also wonder If I actually made a difference. They hired someone to replace me, of course. So it’s not like there’s going to be one less body in the building, one less person passing things around. But at least I don’t have to watch people get sick and maybe die and know that I had a part in it, when I absolutely didn’t have to. I recognize, of course, that lots of people absolutely do have to have a part in it. And that’s agonizing.
The first thing I did when I quit was I reached out to my department right away. And most of them were like, “You were really brave, and I’m really proud of you.” One of my administrators, privately, said the same thing: “You’re really brave. And I’m super impressed with you for taking this step and doing what you knew was right.” That did actually feel great, that other people in my school who may not have been in the same position to make the same decision as me, made me feel appreciated. They didn’t feel like I was being disloyal.
My dad died recently. And knowing he was alone, that no one could be with him—no one was allowed in the hospital—I don’t wish that on anybody. He didn’t die of COVID-19, but he was alone because of it. I don’t want anybody else to die alone. I don’t want anybody else to have to say goodbye to their family members. I was supposed to go see my dad in March, and I had to cancel because that was when everything was shutting down. And I kept hoping everything would open back up and I’d have a chance to see him again before he died. I never did. I never saw him again. I don’t want that for anyone.