When schools returned to in-person learning at the beginning of the 2021–22 school year, so did educators’ hopes for a return to some semblance of normalcy.
Instead, many were greeted by the negative fallout from the pandemic: academic achievement gaps and stalled social and emotional development among students, exhaustion, and collective trauma. It’s no wonder then, that districts in 2021-22 saw educator attrition rates grow.
Just how bad was it? It’s difficult to track K-12 educator attrition rates federally, but new statistics from a handful of states shed some light.
North Carolina is one of them. The Education Policy Initiative at Carolina, or EPIC, a research group within the public policy department at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, studied the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the state’s public school teachers and leaders. Zeroing in primarily on attrition and vacancy rates from September 2021 to September 2022, their data published in February 2023 reveal significant staffing issues for the state of North Carolina—and likely reflect similar challenges nationwide.
“This attrition highlights significant concerns regarding how churn in the educator workforce may adversely impact student academic and social-emotional recovery and put additional strain on remaining educators,” EPIC researchers Kevin C. Bastian and Sarah Crittenden Fuller wrote in their report.
Here are some key takeaways from EPIC’s recent data collection on North Carolina public schools. They highlight the significant effect of the pandemic on statewide teacher and principal attrition, felt most acutely in high-poverty, under-resourced areas that serve majority Black students.
Attrition rates fell for teachers and principals early in the pandemic
Between September 2019 and September 2020, teacher and principal attrition actually fell to 9.8 and 10.4 percent, respectively, from 11.2 percent for teachers and 11.5 percent for principals between September 2018 and September 2019. Bastian credited an uncertain economy with the low attrition rates early in the pandemic. But beginning in September 2020, this trend began to reverse for both groups as a growing number of educators left their jobs. This reversal begs the question: Did challenges accumulating during the pandemic eventually begin to adversely affect public school teachers’ and principals’ morale to the point of departure? The statistics do not address that question.
Later attrition rates were higher for ‘effective’ teachers
Post-pandemic, which was what researchers called the study span from September 2019 to September 2022, North Carolina public schools saw higher percentage increases in attrition among effective teachers, as measured by school officials, compared to less-effective teachers, according to the EPIC research. Pre-pandemic, from September 2016 to September 2019, the opposite occurred: 12.8 percent of teachers with low evaluation scores left the school system annually compared to 13.1 percent post-pandemic. Among the more highly rated teachers, 9.3 percent left annually pre-pandemic, compared to 10.5 percent post-pandemic.
Despite those ups and downs, overall teacher attrition rates grew from 2020 to 2022
North Carolina’s public teacher attrition reached a peak of 15.6 percent between September 2021 and September 2022, up from 12.1 percent between September 2020 and September 2021. Each percentage point increase in attrition represents approximately 1,000 teachers who left the state’s public schools.
Surging principal attrition rates in September 2022 outpaced those of teachers
Principal attrition increased to 17.5 percent in September 2022, up from 12.5 percent in September 2021. To put that exodus into perspective, nearly 1 of every 5 principals in September 2021 no longer held that position a year later.
Many of those departures came during the school year
Approximately 6 percent of North Carolina public school teachers and 7 percent of principals departed from their positions between September 2021 and May 2022, the most recent period these data were collected. By comparison, 3.5 percent of teachers and 4.8 percent of principals left their positions between September 2016 and May 2017.
The departures exceeded new hires
Nearly 14,700 teachers exited North Carolina public schools between September 2021 and September 2022, and only 13,000 teachers entered the workforce during that same period, leaving a 1.8 percentage point vacancy gap.
Schools serving low-income, largely Black communities were hit hardest
Not all North Carolina school districts have been affected equally by post-pandemic teacher and principal attrition. Between September 2021 and September 2022, three districts saw attrition rates less than 10 percent, while six districts’ attrition rates were greater than 30 percent during this period. The highest attrition rates occurred in the districts that were most under-resourced, with higher percentages of low-income families and Black students, Bastian said.
EPIC’s findings present a large amount of data on North Carolina public schools’ attrition and vacancy rates, pre- and post-pandemic. “Sometimes you can get lost in the data,” Crittenden Fuller said. But, she pointed out, for students whose teachers are replaced with substitute teachers, or who lose art or music classes due to teacher vacancies, the losses are more meaningful than simple percentages.