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This Duval teacher gave up $200 a month in retirement to avoid another year of pandemic teaching

A 62-year-old man smiling in the foreground, a row of golf carts in the background.
Claire Heddles
Sherman Reed retired early to avoid COVID exposure in Duval classrooms.

As Duval Schools scrambles to fill teacher shortages, some long-time educators say the job isn't worth the health risks.

Former high school math teacher Sherman Reed spent 28 years in Duval Schools, just two years short of getting full retirement benefits. But as the delta variant tore through Jacksonville last summer, he decided to retire early anyway.

That decision will cost him $200 a month, for the rest of his life. Reed is one of about 3 million U.S. residents who opted for early retirement, a trend that has spiked during the pandemic, according to new research.

“If I could have worked virtually the entire year, or at least at the beginning of the year ... I would have stayed for a while, but they just weren't able to do it,” Reed said. “For me, the risk wasn't worth the reward.”

According to a new poll from the National Educators Association, 55% of teachers plan to leave teaching earlier than they originally planned.

Reed said his school called him a few times in the fall asking him to come back as his position remained vacant for months, but by that point he’d already made up his mind.

“My health is more important than money, so I gave up 200 bucks a month,” Reed said. “That was a choice I made, and I have no regrets doing that.”

Now, Reed works part time at Bend Creek Golf Course on Jacksonville’s Westside, mowing the grass and working in the clubhouse. A large part of his new job has been outdoors, which feels safer to him than a classroom.

Sitting near the golf green on a sunny Thursday morning, Reed, now 62, said what he misses the most is the students.

“That’s the thing that I really, really miss, just that interaction with the students,” Reed said.

Even so, he said he's happy. And unlikely to ever go back.

Factors driving teacher shortages

Early retirement is just one of a slew of factors plaguing Florida schools, desperate to fill vacant teaching positions. According to the Florida Education Association, teaching vacancies increased by more than 67% from 2020 to 2021.

Data obtained by the Florida Times-Union showed Duval Schools had its highest teacher vacancy in five years last fall. As of this week, there were more than 200 teaching positions still listed on the district’s career website.

Superintendent Diana Greene told the School Board in early January that the district had more than 1,000 administrative, teaching and support staff vacancies, and that the vacancies were disproportionately affecting already underserved schools.

"It's our struggling schools where the vast majority of those vacancies are located," Greene said. "When you have vacancies added with what we're dealing with COVID-19 with the pandemic, it required us to pull out all stops and put all hands on deck."

The state teacher’s union attributes the teacher shortage crisis, in part, to Florida’s low average teacher pay.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has focused on raising Florida’s starting teacher pay in recent years, allocating $600 million for teacher salaries in his most recent budget proposal.

Duval Schools also raised starting teacher pay in recent months, but veteran teachers aren't reaping the same benefits.

For early retiree Sherman Reed, less money for safer working conditions at a golf course was worth the trade off to retire early.
Claire Heddles
For early retiree Sherman Reed, less money for safer working conditions at a golf course was worth the trade-off to retire early.

“It ended up being a lopsided effort focused on pay for the beginning teachers that left highly qualified, experienced educators making the same, or kind of close to the same, as a first-year hire,” Duval Teachers United President Terrie Brady told the School Board in December.

Other teachers groups, including the Jacksonville Public Education Fund, have expressed concerns that some of the education bills currently moving through the state Legislature that increase oversight of what teachers can say in the classroom could make it even more difficult to retain teachers.

And as with a national trend, some teachers say not even higher pay would bring them back during a pandemic.

Newly retired Duval teacher Philip Levy said outside factors pushed him out of work, but COVID is keeping him out.

“The main impetus for me to retire was that my wife needed my assistance,” Levy said. “But COVID was icing on the cake because I couldn't afford to bring home any germs.”

Community solutions

High school math and science vacancies, like Sherman Reed's, have been the hardest to fill, according to a district plan to bring in virtual teachers to fill the gap.

In December, the School Board approved a million-dollar agreement with Elevate K-12 to have virtual instructors teaching math and science in up to 24 classrooms, with a long-term substitute watching the students in person.

The district also started placing district staffers, including Greene herself, into classrooms to fill substitute shortages last month, but district representatives say that's a short-term solution.

"Our long-term solution is continuing to invest in teacher recruitment and retention initiatives, with an emphasis on strategic community collaboration," district representative Laureen Ricks wrote in an emailed statement.

"The persistent issue of teacher shortage is a comprehensive problem that needs a comprehensive, community-based solution.”

One of those solutions includes an collaborative initiative between the district, the University of North Florida and other education organizations to recruit 1,000 men of color into teaching by 2025.

The district has at least three other special recruitment programs to create pathways into teaching, including the LEAP, S.T.A.R.T. and Project Jumpstart Program.

Teachers still pressured

But until those initiatives fill the teaching gaps, the teachers left in the classroom are left feeling the pressure.

Some in Duval Schools say COVID safety concerns are still a stressful fact of life.

Teacher Monica Gold has been in the profession for just three years and said she wants more thorough contact tracing and N95 masks readily available to feel safer.

She was joined by a group of teachers calling for increased safety measures at a Duval School Board meeting Tuesday.

Duval Schools representative Tracy Pierce said the district has been adjusting its COVID policy based on guidance from experts.

“We continue to hear from people with various views in the ongoing debate about the ‘correct’ response to COVID-19. That’s why the district and the School Board revised its communicable disease policy last fall,” Pierce wrote in an email.

Under the new policy, the Duval Schools superintendent consults with public health experts, medical professionals, the District Advisory Council and sometimes the head of local hospitals, to decide how to mitigate the spread.

Combined with the continuing debate about the best method to slow the spread, a recent poll from the NEA found that 80% of teachers say vacant job openings are leading to more work for the teachers who are left, which could lead to even more teachers taking the leap the early retirees already have.

Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.