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Teacher who resigned over COVID-19 concerns fined $2000 by Arizona school district

Governor Doug Ducey has threatened to withhold funding from schools that don't open for in-person instruction to at least some students by August 17.

Teacher who resigned over COVID-19 concerns fined $2000 by Arizona school district
Image Source: Getty/ Demonstrators participate in a car caravan protest calling for public school classes to be held remotely when school begins in the fall on August 03 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson)

Tavious Peterkin, from Surprise, Arizona, chose to leave his job as a band and choir teacher after his school district required all educators to return to the classroom for virtual learning amid the pandemic. Peterkin—who has been teaching for 15 years—was scheduled to begin his first year at Dysart Unified School District and was told to prepare to teach virtual learning inside the classroom starting this month. He also got to know that face-to-face instructions would begin sometime in October. "That right there was what did it for me," he told Good Morning America.

 



 

"It was the face-to-face instruction that was the major red flag. Teaching virtually from the classroom setting did raise some concerns for me," Peterkin added. His concerns grew with reports of a surge in Coronavirus cases in Arizona since its May 15 statewide reopening with the state's health department revealing in late July that nearly 90 percent of intensive care units were full. The state has reported at least 180,505 confirmed cases in total and this week, the number of new daily cases reached 1008. Despite these worrisome numbers, governor Doug Ducey has threatened to withhold funding from schools that don't open for in-person instruction to at least some students by August 17.

 



 

He seems oblivious to the dangers of forcing teachers back into classrooms under these current circumstances even though compelling evidence suggests it could prove fatal for those involved. According to Phoenix ABC affiliate KNXV, three Arizona teachers in Gila County tested positive for the Coronavirus in June—of which one died—despite following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines after teaching virtual courses from the same room. "The more I heard about it, the more I'm thinking, 'I don't know if I could do this,'" said Peterkin.

 



 

"My wife said, 'I'm not OK with you going.' Then, I have my mom and dad in my other ear saying, 'We don't want you to do this,'" he revealed. While his school district has instructed all staff and students to wear masks or protective shields and maintain a distance 6-feet apart, Peterkin—who normally instructs 50 to 70 students—doesn't see how this precautionary guideline can be followed in his classroom. His students cannot wear masks and play certain instruments or sing.

 



 

His concern is well-founded as, according to the University of Iowa Health Care, singers and wind instrument players might be at a higher risk for spreading COVID-19. Although more studies need to be done on the subject, it stands to reason that there will be an increased production of droplets or aerosol that may be transmitted during a wind performance. With these concerns in mind, Peterkin suggested teaching music theory to his students as an alternative by incorporating lessons through math and science. Furthermore, many of his students excelled in the at-home, virtual-learning model.

 



 

When Peterkin brought his health and safety concerns to the principal on July 10, they were passed on to human resources, from whom he never heard back. After waiting 10 days for a response from the district, he resigned on July 20—two days before his scheduled orientation. "I love kids and I'm very passionate about what I do," he said. "Had there not been a pandemic, I would've never resigned. I was excited about making my mark in a new district. I was going to be building the program. It meant a lot to me to be there." However, resigning his position put him in a position of having to pay $2,000 to Dysart Unified School District due to a liquidation damage clause in his contract.

 



 

"My thinking was, we are in a global pandemic where people are losing their lives left and right. The protocols you've set in place will not keep me from getting [COVID-19] and bringing it home to my family, so why do I have to pay you $2,000, when you haven't paid me anything?" he asked. The Dysart Unified School District, however, justified the clause in a statement to GMA, saying: "While we understand that these are challenging times for everyone, our mission to educate remains, and we cannot do that without a full team of staff. If employees leave unexpectedly, we will have immediate, and in many cases, hard to fill positions open. This ultimately impacts our students, who need committed teachers from day one."

 



 

"As a result, Dysart has had a Governing Board approved liquidated damages clause in all certificated contracts for many years in order to reduce the turnover of employees without appropriate notice, as is a common practice among districts. We understand that there is a wide range of emotions and concerns relating to the pandemic right now, and Dysart's Human Relations department has been working tirelessly to address each employee concern as it arises," the statement continues. As for Peterkin's contract, the district said he agreed to the liquidated damages by signing his contract on May 16, by when the virus was already rampant in the state. The district said it upheld its end of the agreement by holding the position for him until he put in his resignation and offering a preschool program to staff to fill child care needs.

 



 

"I felt at peace when I came to the decision," Peterkin said. "I can't bring anything home to my family. We have a 3-year-old, and he's our only child." He is now launching his own online school geared toward homeschooling and hopes to offer live instruction on all subjects for grades 3 to 8.

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