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COVID-19 forcing some Arizona educators to retire early

"I love those kids and where I taught and what I did, but I'm not willing to die for them."

PHOENIX — As the school year approaches, districts across the state set to ring the bell in some form of remote or in-person instruction but some teachers are facing a tough decision. Should they come back at all? 

Marcy Warner had to make that tough decision. 

The visual arts teacher has been working with students since the 1970s and has spent more than 40 years in the Scottsdale Unified School District teaching at Chaparral High School. Many of her students have won the state's congressional art competition. 

"I love my job. I love my kids. I love the staff at Chaparral," she said. "I love those kids and where I taught and what I did, but I'm not willing to die for them." 

Warner is making the difficult decision to retire this week. She's in her late 60s and fears the coronavirus which, according to the state health department, has claimed the lives of more than 2,400 Arizonans 65 and older.

State educators and medical professionals remain in limbo over how the state plans to keep both teachers and students safe when they return to the classroom.

"I've never seen the level of anxiety like it is right now," said Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas.  

Early retirements could put further strain on an already severe teacher shortage across the state. A survey from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association showing more than 7,400 openings needed to be filled for the 2018-2019 school year.

"It's becoming more difficult to attract new educators in Arizona and hopefully that changes but this virus tampers down on that," said Thomas.  

Warner's passion for teaching students remains the same but she leaves hoping the memories of her last year to be about both her and her student's legacy. 

According to the Arizona Department of Retirement, there has not been a noticeable spike in retirement applications during the pandemic. Here are retirement numbers for the last three years. 

  • 2020: K-12 1,993 and Charter Schools 115 
  • 2019: K-12 2,043 and Charter Schools 101
  • 2018: K-12 2,122 and Charter Schools 100 

David Canella with ASRS Public Affairs says there are a number of different criteria for reaching full retirement benefits, depending upon a member's age and years of service and when they first became an ASRS member.