America’s public schools are struggling with a wave of departures by COVID-fatigued teachers just weeks before the first day of class.
The Memphis-Shelby County Schools on Friday held interviews for retired teachers looking to return to the classroom under a new Tennessee law. The 6,000-teacher district has 200 vacancies less than three weeks before school begins.
In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools has 400 teaching vacancies. According to the school system, 1,070 teachers resigned or retired between Sept. 1 and July 7, a 38% increase from 775 during the same period in 2020-21. Only 494 teachers left in 2018-19 and 444 quit in 2019-20.
In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has called on school systems to recruit more teachers from the military and from historically Black colleges. Five Atlanta-area districts — Chattooga County Schools, Commerce City Schools, Jackson County Schools, Jefferson City Schools and Rome City Schools — start on July 29.
“To me, I feel this is due to pandemic challenges, but also because we have lowered our expectations and the bar on education for students,” Julie Giordano, a Maryland public high school teacher running as a Republican for Wicomico County executive on the state’s Eastern Shore, said Friday. “Teachers are also frustrated that the people making these decisions for schools have not set foot in a classroom since they were students.”
A February poll from the Maryland State Education Association found that 60% of educators were more likely to quit or retire earlier than they had planned due to the pandemic. The state teachers union cited large class sizes as contributing to increased stress.
National reports of teacher unhappiness and burnout have snowballed in recent months.
A recent American Federation of Teachers (AFT) member survey found that the 2021-22 academic year was “one of the worst years for preK-12 teachers and staff,” with a record-high 79% of school employees expressing dissatisfaction with their working conditions.
In March, the American Psychological Association (APA) reported that 49% of K-12 public school teachers surveyed during the pandemic intended to quit the profession. They cited a COVID-era uptick in physical violence and verbal harassment from frustrated families as their reason for quitting.
California-based psychologist Thomas Plante, an APA fellow, said the flood of students returning over the next few weeks could overwhelm teachers who faced extra stress during COVID-19.
“Being a school teacher now is especially hard when you add up the additional stressors such as COVID and related COVID rules like mask wearing, online classes for those who are sick, demanding and micromanaging parents and legislators, gun violence in schools, and even death threats in political divisive and charged environments,” Mr. Plante said Friday.
The nation’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the AFT, were not available Friday for comment. An AFT spokesperson referred The Washington Times to a July 16 teacher shortage task force report. In it, the union calls for increased pay and mental health resources for teachers and recommends de-emphasizing standardized testing to relieve pressure on educators to perform.
“Why do we have a teacher shortage? Because we have a shortage of respect for educators,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.
Reports have shown test scores plunged for students who learned at home during the pandemic, adding to the pressure on poor districts to make up lost ground.
A Harvard University report on testing data from 2.1 million students in 10,000 schools released this year found that high-poverty, multicultural public schools spent more weeks in remote instruction during 2020-21 and suffered the steepest declines in math and reading scores.
Districts are bracing for an expected flood of anxious and depressed students returning next month from three years of school closures, mask mandates and learning gaps.
Burbio reported this month that its School Budget Tracker showed a spike in K-12 spending on social emotional learning (SEL) and mental health resources – including staff and therapeutic support classrooms – heading into the fall semester.
Ray Guarendi, a Canton, Ohio, clinical psychologist who counsels families, said it’s unfair to expect teachers to handle students’ mental health problems alone.
“They are being asked to teach, discipline, control, do social work and emotionally educate children, many of whom are coming unprepared from their home life,” Mr. Guarendi said. “It is a recipe for frustration prompted by feelings of being asked to do the near impossible without the tools and proper authority.”
In addition to spending more on mental health support to keep veteran teachers, school officials are conducting recruitment drives. At the end of May, the California Center on Teaching Careers, an agency that represents districts in more than half of the state’s counties, launched a “we want you” campaign to fill an estimated 30,000 vacancies across the state.
But with more veteran teachers expected to cash in their pensions during the new school year, many districts will have to keep tapping retired teachers and substitutes to get by.
Jim Politis, president of the National Substitute Teachers Alliance, continues at age 82 to serve as a substitute in Montgomery County Public Schools. Before becoming a sub, he taught full time in the county’s schools for 32 years, retiring in 1999.
“I know Montgomery County has rehired retirees, but I’m too old to go back myself,” Mr. Politis said Friday, chuckling. “They will kick the recruiting into high gear, but my guess is we’ll wind up 100 teachers short on the first day of school.”