A contract is a contract, right?


During a pandemic, perhaps not. Here’s the situation: Teachers are required to sign contracts for the upcoming school year. Usually they have to make up their minds in May, before summer really begins. But this year, May was also a time when Kansas seemed to have COVID-19 under control, with a steep decline in cases.


As the summer progressed, cases exploded. And teachers were left wondering what to do — especially because if they resign they’re required to pay a fine. As Stephan Bisaha of KMUW and the Kansas News Service reported earlier this month: "Resigning would mean more than losing steady paychecks during a recession and insurance during a pandemic. Teachers that leave now must pay their districts thousands of dollars."


The fines are in place for a reason, and teachers’ unions haven’t traditionally opposed them. A teacher leaving right before the school year begins can mean more work for others and a costly replacement process. Paying a financial penalty underscores the gravity of the situation.


But educators are now facing a situation far graver than they imagined in May.


Many communities in Kansas are still seeing COVID-19 spread like a prairie fire. Many people throughout the state are still getting sick and being hospitalized. And with the state Board of Education rejecting Gov. Laura Kelly’s executive order to delay the beginning of the school year, each district has to make its own decision.


We shouldn’t be putting teachers in this position, especially those who are older or have underlying health conditions. (Not that we should be putting younger ones without such conditions in this position either.) These are life or death issues, and people need to be allowed to make best decisions for themselves, without the fear of a substantial financial penalty.


Much more is also being required of teachers this year. Many will be teaching classes in person, online and as a hybrid of both. If the end of last school year taught us anything, it’s that online education can’t simply be willed into existence. It takes patience and planning to get right, and most districts are simply adding it to the burden of already overloaded teachers.


Districts must be flexible as school begins. If teachers feel like they can’t do their jobs safely, they should have the ability to resign without being harshly penalized.