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
People form two lines in front of an Exit sign
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related Tags:

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Recruitment & Retention Schools Pay a High Price for Low Teacher Salaries
Teacher turnover rates are rising and more than half of teachers said a salary hike could persuade them to stay in the classroom longer.
4 min read
Conceptual image of salary.
Collage by Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty)
Recruitment & Retention How 'Grow-Your-Own' Programs Are Helping Recruit Teachers of Color
Learn which strategies are working to recruit and support future teachers of color.
6 min read
Diverse team builds a geometric shapes structure together
Rudzhan Nagiev/iStock /Getty Images Plus
Recruitment & Retention Understaffed School District IT Departments Are a Big Problem. Here's One Way to Solve It
An Oregon district needed bilingual support staff to help Spanish-speaking families manage virtual learning. It didn't need to look far.
4 min read
A worker passes public school buses parked at a depot in Manchester, N.H., Monday, April 27, 2020. New Hampshire public school children continue to be taught with remote learning, while buildings are closed to students through the end of the academic year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
In school districts across the country, buses sat idle through much of the past year. Some districts turned to bus drivers or other support staff to fill IT jobs.
Charles Krupa/AP
Recruitment & Retention Pay Raises and Pandemic Bonuses: Can They Keep Teachers in Classrooms?
Some states are proposing salary hikes and offering teachers one-time bonuses. Will the money have an effect on post-pandemic retention?
8 min read
Woman paying bills.