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2019 Arizona Teacher of the Year says he's ready to return to the classroom despite being high risk for COVID-19

“I’ll talk to my doctor, I respect doctors and science... if on October 12 they say we are going back, I’ll be back with a mask on.”

PHOENIX — Back to school looks a lot different this year.  

The school year has already begun for some districts across the state with remote learning. Others are set to ring the bell for students to return to class on Monday. But educators continue to face a very tough decision.

Should they come back at all or leave the job they love due to health concerns?  

Arizona’s 2019 Teacher of the Year, Kareem Neal, who is considered a higher risk after donating a kidney to his sister last year, said that he is ready to go back to the classroom and his students need him.

“Most of my students in my class, will be in my class for four years of their high school career or more,” said Neal.  

Neal is considered top of his field as a self-contained special education teacher. He's been a teacher for more than two decades. His journey to the classroom can be summed up in one word, "serendipity".

“I realized I had never interacted with someone with significant learning differences,” said Neal. 

As a 6-foot-7 junior at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, he loved math and science and was studying to become a chemical engineer when he stumbled into a meeting that would change the course of his life. 

“When I went to the Special Olympic event that was a different kind of feeling. It was more of an okay! This is what I want to do!” It was there he’d discovered his passion for teaching kids with special needs. 

He began his career working at The Developmental Learning Center of New Providence in New Jersey and worked with students with autism. He then moved to Arizona and taught at The Children's Center for Neurodevelopmental Studies. Now he serves as a self-contained Special Education teacher for Maryvale High School, developing curriculum across all learning areas used by the Phoenix Union High School District. 

“Most of my students in my class, they will be back in my class for four years of their high school career or more,” said Neal. He considers his students and co-worker an extension of his family.  

But like many educators and students across the state, COVID-19 has Kareem spending the day with his students behind the screen of a computer as school districts decide if it’s safe to go back to the classroom. The Phoenix Union High School District implementing virtual learning until October 12. 

Kareem is considered high risk for the virus after donating one of his kidneys to his sister Joy. His doctor warned him to avoid large groups. "Doctors told me they 'worry about a person who only has one kidney if they got COVID how would that affect them',” said Neal.   

As many voices have called for school districts to postpone ringing the bell for kids to return, Kareem is ready to return and said that he trusts his school will do everything they can to keep teachers and kids safe in the classroom.

"I think our schools will do temperature checks. They have on all the doors at my school how many square feet and how many people can be in the room." 

Neal said he understands the other side of the argument. "If a person doesn't feel safe and the person knows of a family member that's vulnerable, it's personal." 

He said that his students need in-person instruction. 

"My students have high needs. We are doing bathroom skills. We are doing feeding skills, things of that nature, so I need to be there."

Neal said this shouldn't be a political or partisan issue. He said that in light of everything we've experienced so far this year, he hopes the community will grow stronger and listen to each other despite our differences.