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Teachers weighing risks of heading back to classroom, some not returning

Teachers said any decision comes with sacrifice, but keeping student safety at the top of mind is important.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — Teachers are making tough decisions as we enter an unprecedented school year. They are weighing the pros and cons of heading back to the classroom and some are choosing not to return in the fall.

Upwards of 4,000 teachers face that choice in Knox County alone.

Teachers said any decision comes with sacrifice, but keeping student safety at the top of mind is important.

South Doyle High School French Teacher Korey Wheatley made up her mind for the 2020 school year a long time ago.

"I am returning," Wheatley said. "It's not an easy decision, but I'm gonna have to make the best of it."

She and many other teachers were faced with options on whether to return to the classroom for an uncertain year.

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"I wanna be there for my students," Wheatley said. "First and foremost, that's what we do. We wanna be there for our students. We haven't seen them in a very long time."

She feels in-person instruction is important, and it is where students can feel safe, minimizing inequities. Her decision doesn't come without health risks, and she knows that.

"Getting our content taught is pretty much secondary at this moment to making sure that all of our students' needs are met," Wheatley said.

Wheatley said she agreed to go back as long as cleaning and safety supplies were made available for educators. She's worried about infection happening sooner rather than later.

President of the Knox County Education Association, Tanya Coats, said other teachers are choosing not to risk it.

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"We've heard that they're either retiring, high-risk category or it's just not feasible for them in their families," Coats explained.

Knox County Schools said teachers can take a semester or year leave of absence, but it would be without pay. Many cannot forfeit their paycheck so they are going back to the classroom even though they don't want to.

"We are fighting a demon of this virus, and when no one could tackle this alone, we're going to have to tackle this together," Coats encouraged.

Coats said it's important for the community to support schools now more than ever, including financially.

The CDC released recommendations for in-person instruction last week. It encouraged classroom learning, saying extended school closure can be detrimental to a child's well-being.

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Governor Lee said state guidelines for Tennessee schools will be released Tuesday.

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