- K-12 employees are almost twice as likely as other government employees to say they have had a difficult time adjusting to changes brought on by COVID-19, at 42% and 22% respectively, according to a MissionSquare Research Institute survey of 1,203 state and local government employees conducted in May and released this week.
School employees also reported higher levels of anxiety (34%), stress (52%) and burnout (52%) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Comparatively, 29% of other government workers reported feeling anxious, 35% reported being stress, and 34% reported feeling burnt out.
- However, K-12 employees were more likely to say they preferred to stay in the same general line of work or with the same employer, and less likely than other government employees to say they’d like to change the industry or department they worked for.
During a Tuesday webinar presenting the findings, Richard Counts, managing director of the CSD Retirement Trust, said school districts are still not out of the clear when it comes to teacher burnout and retirement.
“What we’re seeing by surveys is that over 30% of the teachers, year over year, have decided to retire early because of the pandemic,” he said, adding that in some states that percentage is over 40%. “They’re overwhelmed, they’re tired, they’re stressed, they’re concerned — they’re taking on that emotional responsibility because they feel that their students are underperforming and falling back.”
Counts added this is “happening across multiple states and is a big, big concern,” not only for school districts, but nationally due to the pre-existing teacher shortage.
When schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers were thrust into an uncertain work environment, all while also balancing their own home lives and personal losses. In the months following school closures, many voiced concerns about the mental wellbeing of educators, as well as their retention.
Surveys show this concern was valid: According to a poll conducted by the National Education Association in August 2020, 28% of teachers reported they were likely to leave the profession or retire because of COVID-19. Likelihood to leave the profession also grew with level of experience, with one in five teachers with less than 10 years experience expressing this sentiment, compared to 40% with 21 to 30 years of experience and 55% with more than 30 years.
For superintendents, losing seasoned educators during a time when they were needed most was highly concerning.
When schools began to reopen, teachers who were asked to balance both hybrid and in-person learning were particularly distressed. Adding to that was the necessity of high-quality summer instruction in order to curb pandemic learning losses.
In some cases, teacher unions leveraged their bargaining and legal powers to put guardrails in place. In Chicago, for example, the local teacher union sued Chicago Public Schools and the U.S. Department of Education, citing educators' increased workloads and saying, in some cases, teachers had added 27 additional hours to their teaching calendar for individualized education program case management as they developed remote learning plans.
In response, the federal education department at the time said the union was “making excuses for why they can’t educate all students instead of figuring out a way to make it happen."
However, districts in many cases have adopted a different approach. In order to retain high-quality teachers, district leaders have invested in social-emotional support for staff in addition to students, including offering professional development in that area.
MissionSquare’s most recent survey also shows teachers were more likely than other workers to take on more debt during the pandemic, and to say the pandemic somewhat negatively impact their finances. To tackle this, in the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township in Indianapolis, financial experts are available to assist teachers.
The responsibility to recruit and retain teachers also often falls on the shoulder of school leaders, who have the power to make school environments inclusive and supportive.
"A lot of it has to do with principals, decisions they make, and advisors in terms of hiring decisions," Aimee Green-Webb, chief of human resources for Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky, said in an August webinar, adding that teacher retention "really is in their hands."