Recruitment & Retention

Many Feared an Educator Exodus From the Pandemic. It Doesn’t Seem to Have Happened. Yet.

By Denisa R. Superville — August 16, 2021 5 min read
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It looks like the great educator exodus that many had predicted because of the pandemic hasn’t materialized. At least not yet, according to a survey of district leaders released Monday by the RAND Corporation.

Superintendents surveyed in June and early July estimated that only 6 percent of their principals and teachers retired or resigned at the end of the 2020-21 school year, a percentage those superintendents said was in keeping with pre-pandemic years.

Those findings run counter to surveys last year during the first wave of the pandemic that indicated that teachers and principals may quit in large numbers amid health and safety concerns, job-related stress, and uncertainty tied to the pandemic.

In an August 2020 survey from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, for example, 45 percent of school leaders who responded said they were considering leaving the profession earlier than planned because of the pandemic.

RAND suggests the Big Quit could still happen due to stress and other issues from the pandemic.

The survey results were not uniform. While superintendents reported teacher and principal retirements and resignations that were similar to normal years, most of the districts that reported higher teacher attrition were majority-white and rural.

Principal turnover was significantly higher in rural districts. But RAND cautioned against assigning too much weight to these results because of the small number of rural schools in the sample size.

They are frustrated, they are tired, but they are committed to the work.

Teacher attrition, meanwhile, was lower in districts serving larger numbers of students from low-income families.

What made those who stayed stick around? Some teachers may be hesitant to leave a stable job during an economically uncertain time. That could change once the economy rebounds, RAND suggested.

And RAND also warns that the reasons why teachers said they were thinking about leaving—including stress—should still worry district leaders as the pandemic continues.

“Taken together, these findings suggest systemic problems that could outlast the COVID-19 pandemic, even though turnover did not spike at the end of the 2020–2021 school year,” according to the report.

Among superintendents surveyed, 46 percent said they planned to quit over the next two to five years. Three percent said they planned to leave at the end of the last school year, and 8 percent intended to exit the profession during the current academic year, according to RAND.

Cause for reassurance—with some caveats for the road ahead

Officials from the associations that represent elementary and secondary school principals said the new survey results comport with what they’re hearing from their members across the country.

“Thankfully, it is in line with what we are seeing, so while folks said they were considering or accelerating their plans … , not as many of them have left,” said Ronn Nozoe, the chief executive officer of the National Association of the Secondary School Principals.

But it’s still worrisome that 6 percent of experienced teachers and principals are leaving the profession, especially in the midst of a pandemic, Nozoe said.

L. Earl Franks, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said he was not surprised by the findings on principals who left the profession during the first full year of the pandemic. However, he expected a higher percentage for teachers.

“They are frustrated, they are tired—but they are committed to the work,” Franks said. “And they are committed to ensuring that students receive a great education coming out of the pandemic and have some stability at the school-building level.”

Franks acknowledged that the landscape was different for districts across the country. Principals leading schools in areas with low vaccination rates and high numbers of COVID-19 cases may find this school year particularly challenging, with districts having to change plans from in-person learning, to hybrid, to virtual schooling as local infection rates fluctuate.

Students under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated and are exposed to the virus, he said. And the continued politicization of public-health measures, such as masking and vaccines, as well as new controversies around topics like critical race theory, add further strain on principals and teachers.

“We may not have seen the worst of this given the Delta variant,” Franks said. “I think there may be more frustration going forward, whether it’s the mask mandate issue or whether it’s the vaccination issue.”

An urban teachers’ union leader, who agreed to speak unofficially and without attribution, also found the new findings unsurprising.

Many of the projections about mass educator exodus were made when teachers and principals were trying to figure out “what to do and how to do it,” the union official said.

But teachers who have returned to in-person schooling have largely found that schools that follow recommended COVID-19 mitigation strategies are safe and that teachers and their principals have figured out how to run schools amid the challenging circumstances, the official said.

There’s also a secondary, but important, financial factor: Teachers, who generally have good health benefits through their unions, may find health care cost-prohibitive if they leave their jobs and are not at retirement age and that the costs far outweigh the benefits of quitting in the midst of a pandemic.

Once teachers feel safe and reassured by the safety protocol enacted by their districts, they are likely to stick around. That’s why this union leader thinks there were fewer resignations and retirements in schools that educate large numbers of students in poverty: those schools were in communities more likely to have mask mandates and in areas where public-health measures were not politicized.

“I think where you were seeing a higher rate was where they had fewer safety protocols in place,” the official said.

Things could well change if the Delta variant continues to spread and there isn’t an uptick in vaccinations when those younger than 12 years old become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines.

“If we see kids not getting vaccinated, and we continue to see vaccine reluctance, we may start to get that fatigue,” the official said. “I don’t know that we’re there yet. But we could [see an exodus] if we don’t start to see an improvement in conditions or if conditions get worse.”

The RAND survey of its American School District Panel, a group of about 860 superintendents and representatives from charter management organizations, was conducted from June 1 to July 2. The findings are based 292 responses, or a 34 percent response rate.

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