MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Doctor Catherine Buck has been an educator for nearly 30 years. For ten of those, she worked as an administrator and as a teacher in Bartlett.
Bartlett City Schools are allowing students to come back five days a week this year, and teachers are expected to return with them.
“I did not see any way that social distancing would work in a school setting and I’m going to be at high-risk. I’m over 60,” said Buck.
She also takes care of her two grandchildren. So instead of waiting two years for her planned retirement, she decided to retire early.
“I just didn’t see that was going to be safe. because I need to be healthy for a long time for my grandchildren, it just wasn’t a risk I was willing to take,” said Buck.
Other teachers aren’t willing to take the risk either according to Beth Brown, President of the Tennessee Education Association.
The TEA is the largest professional organization in Tennessee, representing tens of thousands of educators.
“I have heard from so many educators across the state who are taking leaves of absence, who are leaving the profession entirely or experienced educators who are eligible to retire taking retirement even though they’d like to teach a few more years,” she said.
The Mississippi Association of Educators reports a similar exodus.
“Many of our educators are of age and have underlying health issues and I’m concerned those issues have not been taken into consideration,” said MAE President Erica Jones. “What I’m hearing from my educators is that with the rising number of cases throughout the state that they feel like it’s too soon to return to a school building.”
Teachers eligible to retire in Mississippi do so through the Public Employees’ Retirement System of Mississippi, or PERS.
According to PERS, 598 certified teachers retired from March to June this year compared to 665 during the same time period last year.
Numbers provided by the Tennessee Treasury Department show fewer teachers retired statewide this year compared to last year.
In Shelby County, including the municipal school districts, fewer teachers retired this year with 177 retiring, compared to 228 last year.
However, the Mississippi and Tennessee teachers unions maintain the fear is so real in their states that teachers are not only leaving their positions well before retirement age, but future educators aren’t applying for the vacancies they left behind.
“We currently have a teacher shortage in Mississippi and what I’ve heard from college students is that they’re a little terrified about what school looks like now,” said Jones.
According to the Department of Education, there is a need for teachers in nearly every subject and grade level in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas.
We checked for Mid-South teacher openings. Of the districts that responded, Bartlett City Schools has one teacher vacancy, Collierville has nine and Shelby County Schools has 107 instructional positions open.
Still, there are fewer positions open at SCS this year than at this same time last year when there were 125 open positions.
However, a recent survey done by Kelly Education, the largest provider of substitute teachers nationwide, shows 50% of school administrators polled said teacher vacancies will likely increase -- 60% said substitute teachers are permanently filling current teacher vacancies.
“Teachers are being disrespected and essentially told to shut up and get back to work,” said Brown.
According to Brown, to make matters worse educators haven’t been consulted about when or how to go back to school.
“When they’re being left out of the safety conversation it’s completely understandable why educators are feeling so downtrodden and disrespected,” she said.
Brown believes more teachers will leave the classroom, feeling they must choose between their health or their careers.
When faced with that very decision, Dr. buck chose her health.
“Is this the way you thought you would be leaving the school system,” asked The Investigators.
‘Absolutely not. It’s a career that I have loved,” she said. “I’m going to get teary but I’ve put my life into it. It is not how I saw the end of my career coming about. I’m saddened by it but I’m at peace because it’s what I had to do for my family.”
Those interested in applying for a Shelby County teaching position can do so by visiting choosescs.org.