'I've Been A Teacher For 23 Years—I Wrote My Will Because Of COVID-19'

I started teaching in my 30s, and I'm now almost 57. I first taught in Salt Lake City, Utah because that's where I'm originally from, but I lost a bet to my husband and that's how we ended up in the town of West Wendover, Nevada, where we live now.

I've been teaching at West Wendover High for 20 years and for the past eight years I have been assigned to teach 11th grade U.S. history and 12th grade U.S. government. One of my former students is the mayor of our community now and I'm a city council member.

I had been paying attention to the COVID-19 virus from December—while it was in China and then spreading throughout Europe. But when we closed down schools and went into lockdown on March 13, everybody thought it was temporary.

We are a casino town and driving down the strip seeing all the casinos closed was eerie, because we rely on tourism for our economy. Since the casinos opened back up on June 4, people have gone back to work and we have seen that our COVID-19 cases have started to rise.

We share a border with Wendover, Utah and Utah's cases have also been spiking lately. A lot of people from Utah come out to play in our casinos, so with both states cases spiking, our casinos have been working hard to take all the recommended precautions to keep people safe.

We have had around a 300 percent increase in cases in Elko County since July 1—with West Wendover having had the second highest number of confirmed cases in the county. Everybody knows somebody in town who has it now. Relatively our numbers are low, but per capita it's a little higher than the city with the most cases. Plus, diabetes seems to be very prevalent here in our community and we appear to have a lot of those comorbidity factors. Our community is also around 60 percent Latinx, and data shows that Black and Latinx communities are disproportionately affected by this virus.

Since the pandemic hit, us teachers have had to learn how to distance teach on the fly. The school made sure the kids had computers and a couple of internet companies offered free internet service—so we saw some really good examples of public institutions and private business coming together.

Teacher, Pandemic, Coronavirus, Will
Kathy Durham is a U.S history and government teacher at West Wendover High in West Wendover, Nevada. She recently wrote a will because she is concerned about the impact of the pandemic on teachers. Kim Reamer

But as long as students check in with at least one of their teachers during the week they are counted as attending, so our kids haven't really been full-time learning since March.

Now we are planning for reopening schools in the county for the 2020/21 school year, I feel trapped. I'm not in that vulnerable older age range and for the most part I'm very healthy, but I feel trapped because my husband is 72-years-old and he has a heart condition.

When I get back to in-person teaching, my husband is going to live upstairs and I will live downstairs. But I have a grandmother close by who is 99-years-old. She's wonderful, and I go take care of her about once a week—I'm not going to be able to do that. My parents are in their late 70s and if they need help, I won't be able to go and help them. I'm basically going to be quarantined between the classroom and my home, and there's no guarantee I won't get sick and then get my husband sick.

I don't like being in that position, but at the same time I know how important it is for our kids to be learning and having that socialization. And I know how important it is for our economy, particularly for parents who have elementary school aged children—they need their kids in school so they can go to work. But on the other hand, how is a child going to feel if they got a teacher sick, or their own parents or grandma? How is that going to affect our kids' mental health?

It was early July that I decided to write a will. We had been opening back up here and we had started to see the number of cases increasing. Then on July 9, President Donald Trump said, "we have to get our schools open and stop this political nonsense..." That's when I realized I was going to have to go back to work and be a front line worker like the people working at the store.

I am going to be at risk, and while I can do everything possible to stay safe, I have no guarantees and I just wanted to be prepared. My husband has a will already and hates legal stuff—he's older and we had always assumed that more than likely he would pass before I did. But now you just don't know with this virus. I've heard so many stories about how people get sick, they get whisked away to hospital and then that's it.

This is not what "back to school" should be about. It should be about whether last year's clothes still fit and if I can afford a new jacket. Instead, I'm thinking about who I want to leave my estate and belongings to in my will. I just realized that I have nothing down. We're trying to find the best life insurance policy and covering paying for a funeral, because I don't want my kids to have to start a GoFundMe account to bury their mom.

I wonder what it's going to be like when we go back to school, because we're a small town where everybody knows everybody, and we've already lost one person in our community and it was devastating—it shows you how real this all is. You just don't ever think something like this virus is going to happen.

Teacher, Pandemic, Coronavirus, Will
Kathy Durham has been teaching for 23 years. She recently wrote a will because of concerns about the impact of the pandemic on teachers when schools go back to in-person teaching. Kim Reamer

When we started doing online learning with students, the first activity I told them to do was to keep a journal because they are living in historic times. I also told them to make a time capsule and put a different thing in each week.

In my time capsule, I've got my mask, my diary, the music that I've listened to and some dirt from the desert. I go out to the desert and just sit and listen to Bruce Springsteen. I had always wanted to live through historic times as a history teacher. But I'm done with historic times now—I just want to go back to "dull and boring."

I just have to hope that we get lucky here, and don't lose anybody else we know and love. More broadly, I think that we need to collectively wake up and understand that with our current system of government we all need to be much more involved and informed. I think we need to make sure we hold our leadership much more accountable and think about who we want to be as a country. It's important to listen to experts in science and medicine and take their advice.

I really feel that we are in a crisis in America and things are in a mess. When tragedy usually hits the U.S. we come together, even though we are politically polarized and we argue with each other all the time. But strike our towers as happened on 9/11 and boy, will you see what it means to be an American. I really hope we can get that spirit back, because I'm not seeing it during this pandemic and that's what breaks my heart. As a teacher, I believe economics is directly tied to the quality of education, and I also don't feel we're having conversations around that yet.

Teachers may be called upon to go in and be essential workers but we can act out best practices—wash your hands, wear your mask, social distance, don't get into those petri dish situations and gatherings. Try to do the right thing, not just for yourself but for everyone.

My hope is that we stay well, that we get a vaccine and that this virus goes away. My fear is that things are going to get much worse. But it's like my husband says; all I can do is try and do the right things. Beyond that, there but for the grace of God go I.

Kathy Durham is a government and U.S. history teacher at West Wendover High School and has been a teacher for 23 years. She is also a golf coach, grandmother, mother and wife. She is from Utah and currently lives in West Wendover, Nevada. You can follow her on Twitter at @NanaKathy22

All views expressed in this piece are the writer's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.