Many school districts have announced they won’t hold in-person classes at the beginning of the school year, while others are pushing forward with plans to reopen — and educators, especially those whose underlying medical conditions put them at increased risk of dying from COVID-19, tell PEOPLE they are fearing the worst.
Terri Crothers loves her job as an art instructor, but when her middle school district said teachers must return for in-person classes next month, she was so terrified of getting sick, and maybe even dying, she immediately contacted an attorney and started writing goodbye letters to her family.
She joins a growing list of anxious school teachers who are rushing to lawyers and estate planners to draw up new wills as they face the prospect of going back to their buildings amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m scared as hell about going back into the classroom,” Crothers, 57, of Gallipolis, Ohio, tells PEOPLE. “I’m frightened that if I catch the virus, I won’t survive or I will be left with debilitating effects.”
That fear drove Crothers, who suffers from diabetes, to scramble to get her affairs in order.
“I don’t want to leave my family with the mess of taking care of whatever I might have left behind,” she says.
In addition to legally laying out her final wishes, the divorced mom will ask her attorney to deliver letters to her 19-year-old daughter, Sydney, and her elderly parents, for whom she helps care, just in case the worst happens.
“Sydney will know that I love her and that I’m terribly sorry that I can’t be there for her graduation, her wedding someday or her first child,” Crothers says. “I am telling her that I fought hard to live because I couldn’t stand to be without her, but my time has come and my last thoughts will be of her.”
To her mom and dad, Crothers plans to write “how grateful I am for the love and life they gave me,” she says. “I will ask them to be strong and be there for Sydney as long as they are able. I will tell them I will see them on the other side.”
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School districts around the nation are taking a variety of approaches to reopening. The options include going fully online, bringing in students on a staggered schedule, providing a combination of remote and in-person classes and offering totally in-person classes. Others are still undecided.
Crothers’ plight is being echoed in districts determined to reopen schools as the pandemic worsens in parts of the U.S., with educators who never had a will before working to quickly obtain those papers.
“We’re seeing a lot of uptick in demands for wills, powers of attorney and other healthcare directives,” John Midgett, secretary of the National Association of Estate Planners, tells PEOPLE. “In case something happens, they don’t want to leave more problems for their families.”
A whopping 84 percent of respondents aged 18-34, and 73 percent of people aged 35-54, don’t have any such legal documents, aren’t even sure if they do or not, or prefer not to say, according to a Caring.com survey conducted before the pandemic. The top reason is, “I haven’t gotten around to it,” according to the research results.
But that appears to be changing as people absorb a bracing reality check, Midgett says.
Shawn Arthur Shawn Arthur with his family
“I felt like it was time to solidify and put it in writing, and make our wishes known,” says Shawn Arthur, 36, an 8th grade math teacher in St. Louis.
The father of two young children has asthma, and the medication his wife takes for Crohn’s disease impacts her immune system, he tells PEOPLE.
“We’re worried about what might happen to the kids if something might happen to both of us,” he says.
Midgett sees others reacting to the COVID-19 outbreak similarly.
“This is a wake-up call for many people to do what they should have done for their families,” says Midgett, an attorney in Virginia Beach, Virginia, who says every adult should have a will. “This is the silver lining of the pandemic.”
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States vary widely in how they handle a deceased person’s assets and bills in the absence of legal direction, so people without wills are taking a big risk, Midgett says.
“Would you want the state to tell you how to divide your property?” he says.
The National Education Association, the labor union that represents public school teachers, says the fact that teachers even have to contemplate such issues is distressing.
“We’ve heard of panicked teachers updating their wills,” NEA president Lily Eskelsen García tells PEOPLE. “It is unconscionable that educators and parents are being asked to plan for end-of-life decisions because our country has no plan for reopening schools and institutions of higher education safely.”
But that’s just what people like Shaela Rieker are doing.
“My husband is a stay-at-home dad and I have autoimmune issues,” says Rieker, 34, a 4th grade general education educator in the Wapato School District on the Yakama Nation reservation in Washington.
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Courtesy Shaela Rieker Shaela Rieker
The married mother of two boys, Holden, 8, and Will, 13, tells PEOPLE she never had a will before but is hurrying to get one made before going back to the classroom.
“I am at high risk for the more extreme effects of this virus,” she says. “It would just be irresponsible for me to…not have a will and adequate life insurance to keep my family protected.”
People ages 65 and older are at a higher risk of severe illness from coronavirus, as are people with underlying medical conditions, including heart conditions, obesity, diabetes, liver disease and chronic kidney disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As of Friday afternoon, the U.S. has seen more than 3.6 million coronavirus cases and 138,753 deaths, according to a New York Times database.
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