The pandemic forced employers to fast-track a grand experiment in remote work. Even employees of schools, the most quintessentially “brick and mortar” of workplaces, got a taste of working from home.
And while there’s plenty of evidence in favor of the benefits of having returned to in-person learning when it was safe to do so, many employees—from teachers to non-teaching office workers—continued to crave at least some of the flexibility that they’d grown accustomed to during the pandemic.
Case in point: Just over half of 1,203 educators responding to an EdWeek Research Center survey conducted in November said they’d be interested in a partial or full-time remote work option. That likely comes as no surprise to experts on workplace behavior.
Flexibility at work is a well documented, pre-pandemic perk: A 2005 report by the U.S. Department of Labor found that nearly 4 out of 5 working Americans—regardless of age or income level—reported wanting more flexibility on the job.
While the desire for change in workplace policies tends to start from employees, actual policy shifts must come from the top. Education Week checked in with superintendents who say they’re either open to or currently implementing increasingly flexible work options for their employees to help attract and retain top talent.
Continuing remote work options
When Arizona’s Mesa Public Schools returned to in-person learning following pandemic closures, Superintendent Andi Fourlis didn’t automatically go back to business as usual. She remained open to evaluating working options that would work best, both for individual employees and the district as a whole.
“These hard and fast rules just don’t make sense,” Fourlis said. “The pandemic has taught us that we have to be far more flexible in how we meet the needs of employees.”
Employees of the district’s tech help desk, for instance, found they were more productive at home, so they continued to work remotely.
From a practical perspective, Fourlis encouraged the staff who process the district’s payroll to work remotely when COVID remained at a very heightened risk. In doing so, she hoped to keep those staff members from catching or spreading the virus, which might mean the district would miss making payroll for its employees.
Some of Mesa’s teachers now also work in a flexible manner typically associated with employees in non-teaching positions, thanks to the launch in April 2021 of Mesa Virtual Campus, which currently enrolls about 450 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The students learn remotely 100 percent of the time, but teachers rotate teaching three days a week from a remote location of their choice and coming into the classroom building two days a week, which gives them an opportunity to collaborate with colleagues.
“We feel that gives them a really nice balance,” Fourlis said. “We did not have a hard time staffing the school.”
Part-time positions, job-sharing
Melissa Sadorf is superintendent of the Stanfield Elementary School District. The single-site rural district, an hour and a half from Phoenix, spans about 600 miles.
Sadorf attributes the district’s small number of teacher vacancies, as well as some mid-contract departures by teachers, partly to the district’s remote location.
“Living in a rural community is a lot different, especially for younger teachers. They may not be used to not having the social side of life that a suburban or urban environment provides,” Sadorf said.
Offering perks like flexible working arrangements makes working in the district more attractive to some job candidates.
“We are, and have been, very comfortable with offering job shares and part-time work,” Sadorf said.
The district’s part-time educators include both reading and math interventionists, each of whom works with small groups of children to supplement their learning and skills in that subject. Additionally, the district employs a part-time teacher of English learners.
“They [part-time instructors] come 20 hours, sometimes more or less, depending on the needs of the students,” Sadorf said.
Job applicants have dropped. Can flexible work arrangements help?
Beginning about a decade ago and accelerating over the past three years, the Yarmouth school district in Maine saw a steep decline in job applicants, Superintendent Andrew Dolloff said.
“For an elementary teacher position, it wasn’t unusual to receive 100 applications seven or eight years ago,” Dolloff said. “Now, we’re fortunate if we get a dozen.” For even more highly specialized positions such as high school physical sciences or world languages teachers, getting three qualified applicants is now something to celebrate, Dolloff said.
The challenge is even greater when recruiting for leadership roles such as assistant principals. The district used to anticipate a few dozen applications from qualified applicants, now they’ll receive only about five. It’s a grim reality, said Dolloff, especially given that the district is considered one of the area’s more attractive districts to work for, as it has a reputation of paying teachers well, coupled with good climate and cultural attractions.
Dolloff says the district has “cobbled together” part-time arrangements in a few isolated cases for employees—mostly non-instructional positions such as clerical and support staff—who needed greater flexibility in order to care for either children or elderly relatives. Now that this strategy has been used to retain valued employees, Dolloff said he thinks the district may begin to offer more flexible options to non-teaching job candidates as a regular feature of a benefits package.
Although the district hasn’t implemented or advertised a formal policy of flexible work options for teaching job applicants, Dolloff said he wouldn’t be surprised to see it coming.
“Flexibility—that’s something that’s going to be an attraction for some teaching applicants,” said Dolloff.
He said the district already has had teaching job candidates and existing staff members request alternative schedules or settings.
“But it’s tough to break out of the mold we’re in,” he acknowledged.
He has, however, given some thought to if—and how—such arrangements might work.
“I always dreamed of creating a school more like a college model, where students come at different times of the day,” Dolloff said.
There are some tough obstacles to that vision, though. Union contracts are one, he said, and the impracticality of getting a critical mass of students to agree to a school schedule with non-traditional class times.
“To get 20 physics students into a class at 6 p.m. just doesn’t work,” he said.
But he’s not prepared to bury the idea.
“It’s an idea that could have some legs in the right situations,” Dolloff said. “I think everyone’s intrigued by it.”