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Some Oklahoma teachers choosing to retire early, rather than go back to school

Some Oklahoma teachers choosing to retire early, rather than go back to school (KTUL)

Depending on the school district you live in, there is a variety of ways schools in Oklahoma will be opening in the fall.

That’s forcing teachers to decide, on an individual basis, if they’re comfortable going back to school.

For some teachers, they’re choosing to retire early rather than go back into the classroom.

In one classroom schoolhouse in Cherokee County, Kristal Chuculate-Smith’s mom, Fonda, taught her students and her daughter valuable lessons.

“I would go sit and listen to her teach her math classes,” remembered Kristal.

The moments in the schoolhouse inspired Kristal to become a teacher too. She’s taught in Oklahoma for more than 20 years and most recently was a teacher for Wagoner Public Schools.

However, her whole career changed when COVID-19 shut down the schools on March 13, 2020.

“And you know, I took pictures, just, I don’t know out of circumstance, just a feeling, I don’t know,” said Kristal, describing that Friday in the classroom.

Another big life lesson came on the day of her mother’s funeral in July.

“That was really a deciding factor the day of her funeral, I had to think what’s really important to me, and my family is the most important to me,” said Kristal.

That day she chose to retire early, rather than go back to teach in the fall. She said she has some immune issues, but she chose not to go back for her daughter, Elizabeth.

“Very, very high risk of not recovering from COVID if we would get it,” said Kristal.

Elizabeth received a kidney transplant when she was really young. Throughout the years, she’s been mostly healthy but spent time in the hospital. At the end of 2019 and early 2020, Elizabeth spent months in the hospital. Kristal said it was a long, emotionally draining, and exhausting time.

“It was horrible,” said Kristal. “There were several times that the doctors were very concerned they had exhausted all their medical knowledge.

Kristal isn’t the only teacher choosing to retire early.

“It was just hard, it was a chapter in my life, I worked at a fantastic district and school. So a lot of that is just hard, shutting that door,” said Elaine Green.

Green said she planned on teaching for two more years at Yukon Public Schools, but knew she’d put herself and her husband at risk if she went back to school.

“My job is a public job and I would be at the mercy of multiple families that may or may not exercise those same guidelines, so it’s a risk. It’s a risk,” said Green.

Around a half a dozen retiring teachers spoke with NewsChannel 8 on Monday and Tuesday. All of them said it was a difficult decision to make. Some planned on teaching for several more years, but knew they’d be putting themselves or loved ones at risk if they returned to school.

There’s no indication of a current mass exodus of teachers, but rather many more teachers like Kristal and Elaine, who’re forced to choose between the job they love and the people they love.

“Yes, very hard. Very, very hard, because I love it. My kids are grown now. I could devote a lot of time to teaching,” said Kristal.

Her daughter Elizabeth is still at home and is hoping to attend college in the fall. Kristal said, she was planning to continue to teach to help pay for her daughter’s education.

“College is not cheap,” said Kristal.

Because she’s retiring early, Kristal won’t be eligible for retirement benefits for years. She’s hoping to go back to the classroom once COVID is no longer a threat.

"I would love to go back to work there if things settle down," said Kristal.

It won’t be easy, but she said she knows how to tough it out.

Because that’s another lesson her mother taught her.