Teaching Profession Explainer

Did COVID-19 Really Drive Teachers to Quit?

By Madeline Will, Catherine Gewertz & Sarah Schwartz — November 17, 2020 16 min read
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Teachers and staff protest outside Franklin D. Roosevelt High School in New York Oct. 2, calling for more and better COVID-19 testing and precautions. Teacher retirements are actually down this year in the city despite the pandemic.

News headlines over the summer raised a fearful specter: teachers resigning or retiring en masse, terrified they’d get COVID-19 if they returned to the classroom. But an Education Week analysis shows that the predicted wave of leavers has not materialized across the nation.

As the start of the 2020-21 school year approached and many districts began rolling out plans to bring students back to campus, teachers across the country wrestled with the difficult decision of whether to leave their jobs to protect their health and that of their loved ones or stay in the classroom. Surveys showed that 1 in 5 teachers said they were unlikely to return to in-person instruction in the fall, and that the same percentage said they were said they were more likely to quit at the end of last school year than they were before the pandemic.

Stoking the fears were some troubling statistics: About 18 percent of public school teachers are age 55 or older, putting them at heightened risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. And an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that about 1.5 million teachers—nearly 1 in 4—have health conditions that increase their risk for COVID-19 complications.

But Education Week found there is no way to validate dire predictions of a national spike in teachers leaving the classroom. It will be years before there are federal data that give a clear picture of whether teacher attrition rose or fell nationwide during this unprecedented school year.

What’s clear is there are huge regional variations: An EdWeek review shows that teacher attrition this year was higher in some places, lower in others, and indeterminate in many more.

For instance, educator retirements in New York state spiked this summer—580 educators retired in August, compared to 259 educators last year. There were additional upticks in retirements this June and July.

However, there is no way of knowing exactly how much of that increase was driven by K-12 teachers. New York’s retirement plan members include K-12 administrators, too, as well as educators in the state university system and state community colleges, and some state department of education employees. (It does not include educators in New York City schools, who have their own retirement plan.) A plan administrator said “most” members are K-12 teachers, but no precise percentage is available.

Education Week requested data from half the state educator retirement plans in the country, all of which included more public school employees than just teachers. At least 13 of those, including New York, were unable to isolate K-12 teacher retirement data, making it difficult to compare data. The same is true for several big-city retirement plans for school employees.

When states were able to break out the retirement numbers by job title, there were wide variations from place to place this year compared to last. Retirement numbers also ebbed and flowed over time.

The state and regional variations continued with teacher resignations, too. The National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research and policy group, surveyed about a dozen big-city school districts to see if they had experienced a spike or a decline in teacher resignations and retirements this summer.

There was no clear pattern. And even when there was an uptick in attrition, drilling into the numbers often showed some complexities. For example, Pinellas County schools in Florida reported 192 teacher retirements between April 1 and Oct. 1 this year—up from 168 the year before. However, most of the teacher retirements this year were part of Florida’s deferred retirement option program, which allows teachers to apply for retirement years in advance. That could mean that many of the teachers who retired this year were already planning on doing so.

Experts say these findings aren’t necessarily surprising. Workers are overall less likely to quit their jobs or retire during a recession, and teachers are generally no exception, said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Of course, this economic downturn has the added complication of a contagious and serious virus that teachers have said they fear catching at work. But other factors like local COVID-19 transmission rates and school districts’ reopening plans likely played a role in teachers’ decisions, too, Ingersoll said. Some districts have not yet reopened school doors for in-person instruction or did so midway through the semester.

Another consideration: The teaching force is gradually becoming younger, analyses by Ingersoll show. The percentage of public school teachers age 50 and older has consistently ticked down over the past decade, according to his data. The bulk of teachers are in an age group that’s less vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus.

“You’re a fifth-year teacher and you’re less than age 30, do you really want to quit?” Ingersoll said. “Probably not—you’re probably afraid to.”

That said, when certain states or districts did see a spike in teacher retirements this year, Ingersoll said it is likely related to the coronavirus pandemic—because demographic trend lines would otherwise suggest that retirements should be going down.

‘When Push Comes to Shove’

Going into this school year, many teachers called for their school districts to stay virtual over fears that in-person classes would cause the spread of the coronavirus. (Early data show that outbreaks in schools have been limited.) Threatening to quit may have been a last-ditch effort to convince districts to keep school doors closed in the fall, said NCTQ President Kate Walsh.

“There’s no cost to teachers saying, ‘Oh, I’m out of here if you guys don’t do X, Y, and Z,’ but when push comes to shove, a teacher who quits or retires early is quitting in a job market that’s dried up at the moment,” Walsh said, adding that most people can’t afford to give up a paycheck or take a hit on their pension.

And many districts don’t allow teachers to quit after a certain point in the year. According to an NCTQ analysis of 145 large school districts, 84 have specified a deadline for teachers to submit intent to retire or resign. Of those, nine impose a monetary penalty for teachers who give notice to retire or resign after the deadline has passed. And nearly half of those 84 districts impose a non-monetary penalty for missing the deadline, which could include the suspension or revocation of the teacher’s license or a refusal to rehire the teacher in the future.

In Texas, for instance, the state education code allows teachers to resign without penalty up until 45 days before the first day of instruction. After that, teachers are locked into their contract, and their school district can pursue sanctions from the state, which could include suspending teachers’ licenses for a year.

Crystal, a kindergarten teacher in Texas who asked for her last name to be withheld, was dismayed and angry when her school district announced that it would begin to bring students back to campus midway through the fall semester. She lives with two at-risk people and feels uncomfortable teaching in her school building, especially with COVID-19 cases in her community rising—but the penalty-free resignation date had already passed before the district’s announcement.

“I felt like they were setting up a trap with the resign date passing, and we were still left out of the loop with what’s going to happen in the future,” she said.

As the first day of in-person instruction drew closer, Crystal considered resigning anyway, accepting the possibility that she might not be able to get a teaching job for at least another year. But she ultimately decided that she couldn’t afford to quit without having another job lined up.

“It’s kind of like you have to choose which would be the worst situation—quitting your job and being a little bit safer, … but you don’t have income or health insurance, or you could go to work, be at risk, have money coming in, and have health insurance,” she said. “It’s like a no-win situation.”

At North Dakota’s retirement plan, Denise Weeks fielded more calls than usual this fall from teachers asking how much their payments would be if they retired right away. Usually, teachers are planning farther ahead when they call—the end of the prior school year, maybe. And usually, retirement inquiries start tailing off in July, she said. But this August, with a new and uncertain school year looming, the phones kept ringing.

“We got calls from teachers who went back for a day or two and they want to retire, they want to just stop,” Weeks said. “It sounded like a cry for help.”

Few of those teachers followed through by filing retirement notices, though. “Sometimes when we walk them through what the benefits would be now, versus waiting a year, they say they can’t quit,” she said.

Once school started, the nature of the calls changed. Teachers had shifted back to those longer timelines. By mid-September, Weeks said, teachers were calling to discuss retiring at the end of the school year.

Indeed, the overall picture of COVID-19-related teacher attrition is still taking shape, said Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University professor of education who studies teachers’ work conditions and satisfaction.

“My guess is that people may have decided not to retire at the end of last year but are considering how long to stay once they experience this year,” she said.

After all, teaching looks a lot different than it did before the pandemic. Education Week survey data show that teacher morale has declined. Teachers say they’re exhausted and overwhelmed trying to juggle remote teaching, socially distanced classrooms, or a combination of the two.

“What will happen after the pandemic? Once we’re vaccinated, will everything return to something that we care about and … feel that we can be successful at?” Johnson said. “I don’t think the answer is there.”

Education Week spoke to district and state officials, as well as educators, to get a better sense of what the retirement and resignation trends look like on the ground. These three case studies highlight the many variables and complexities that can determine whether teachers stay or leave.

Arizona: ‘This Is the Last Straw’

Lisa Vaaler joins other teachers for a #Return2SchoolSafely Motor March protest July 15 in Phoenix. Arizona saw a big jump in the number of teachers leaving their jobs in 2020, with many pointing to concerns about COVID-19.

Arizona is one place that did see teachers leave the classroom in larger numbers than before the pandemic. The stats:

  • 751 teachers left their jobs by the end of August 2020, according to the state’s School Personnel Administrators Association. That’s up 75 percent, from 427 in 2019. (The 2020 figure is an outlier in comparison to previous years: 463 teachers left in 2018, 526 in 2017.)
  • About 43 percent of the teachers who left in 2020 cited COVID-19 as their primary reason.
  • 138 teachers took an unpaid leave of absence due to the pandemic.

Though ASPAA’s analysis did not include all districts in the state, Arizona’s state superintendent of education, Kathy Hoffman, said that’s representative of trends the department has seen across schools.

So why might Arizona be seeing these trends when other states aren’t? Officials say there’s no one cause, but rather a perfect storm of factors.

Arizona was a COVID-19 hot spot over the summer—cases spiked in June and July and then slowed through August (though they are starting to rise again). Teachers in Tucson and Phoenix protested the return of in-person classes this summer.

In the Phoenix area, specifically, some districts decided to reopen before public health benchmarks, developed by the state departments of education and health, were met, Hoffman said. For some of these teachers, she said, the decision to leave is driven by “a lack of communication from their school leadership, and having fears and concerns there’s no plan, and worries their safety is going to be compromised.”

Worries about infection are also amplified in the Navajo Nation, Hoffman added, which saw a higher per capita infection rate than any U.S. state in May.

Arizona was one of the states where teachers went on strike in 2018, amid a national wave of teacher activism protesting low pay and cuts to school funding. Teachers did win a raise, but their salaries are still among the bottom 10 states on the National Education Association’s nationwide ranking.

“Arizona was in an underfunded, overcrowded system before COVID,” said Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. Adding uncertainty about working conditions during the pandemic to the mix might have pushed some teachers to decide that continuing to teach in the state was “unsustainable,” he said.

That was the case for one elementary school teacher in the Phoenix area. This teacher, who asked not to be identified due to backlash she’s received from former coworkers, said she started the year teaching online, but decided to resign after her administration asked her to return to the physical classroom. Her district hadn’t consulted teachers about safety precautions, she said.

She was already feeling burnt out and planning a move to Colorado, where she felt that teaching would be more financially viable as a long-term career. But her district’s response to the pandemic solidified her decision. “In Arizona, teachers aren’t respected,” she said. “In that environment, it’s easier to feel like this is the last straw.”
Sarah Schwartz

New York City: Fewer Retirements, Fewer Resignations

A coalition of teachers, students, and families protest during a rally Aug. 3 resisting school reopening. The city saw fewer retirements and resignations this year than in previous years.

Last spring, as the coronavirus took hold in the U.S., it hit New York City particularly hard. The city became one of the nation’s hot spots, with new cases and hospitalizations spiking to frightening highs.

But those numbers did not translate into more teacher resignations or retirements in the district, which in late September became one of the first big school systems to reopen with in-person instruction. The Teachers’ Retirement System of the City of New York reports that fewer K-12 teachers retired this year than last year.

  • 1,100 teachers retired between April 1 and October 1 of this year, a 20 percent drop from the same period in 2019, when 1,377 retired.
  • There was a bit of a spike this September, though: 177 teachers retired that month, 65 percent more than the 107 who retired in September 2019.

The city department of education reported that year over year, teacher resignations are running behind last year’s level, but could not provide exact figures.

Last spring, when new cases of the virus were at their peak in New York City, the retirement board did field a flurry of calls from teachers who were evaluating their options, but most didn’t end up applying, said Debra Penny, who chairs the board of the teachers’ retirement system.

By mid-April, new cases of the virus were declining in the city, and kept dropping through the summer and early fall, a dynamic that might also have influenced teachers’ decisions. They began rising again in early October.

Penny speculated that the economy could be shaping teachers’ decisions to stick with their jobs. Family members might have lost their jobs, making it necessary for teachers to hang onto their own. And there’s the reason that led teachers to the classroom to begin with: “They love what they do, and they’re committed to the kids,” Penny said.

Dick Riley, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers, the city’s teachers’ union, which represents 200,000 educators, said there’s been a lot of talk in the state legislature about offering possible retirement incentives, a strategy lawmakers sometimes use to shrink their budgets. Many teachers also could be waiting to find out what those options might look like, he said.

Allessia Quintana, a 33-year-old social studies and special education teacher at New Dorp High School in Staten Island, said that resigning “never crossed my mind.”

“If anything, [the pandemic] did the opposite: It made me realize how much more the students need us right now,” she said. “They’re dealing with trauma and they need our support.”

For John McCrann, getting permission to work from home made the crucial difference between sticking with his job and considering quitting. A math teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in Manhattan, McCrann is only 37, but has underlying health conditions that put him at greater risk for COVID-19. He also worried he could bring the virus home to his wife and infant son.

McCrann loves his school and his students and doesn’t want to leave. He’s allowed to work from home through December. After that, he said, he’ll reapply and see what happens.
Catherine Gewertz

Dallas: A Trend Continues

Elementary school students in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area return to school for in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Dallas Independent school district is another place where the predicted wave of teachers quitting did not transpire. The district credits what it says is a trend of declining teacher turnover with a slate of supports for teachers, from a pay-for-performance model that allows effective teachers to earn $100,000 or more to a strong mentoring program for new teachers.

“Our turnover has continually decreased [year over year]. There were lots of conversations out there about how this was going to change this year,” said Robert Abel, the deputy chief of human capital management. “We have not seen that materialize in our data.”

  • By the end of August, 327 teachers in Dallas had filed for retirement. That’s about a 20 percent decline from both 2018 and 2019.
  • From May to October, 926 teachers resigned. That’s a 25 percent decline from the same time period in both 2019 and 2018.

Human resource officials said that thanks to their teacher compensation scale—which was put in place in the 2014-15 school year and lets teachers earn more money based on their performance and students’ test scores—turnover has mostly happened among lower-performing teachers in recent years. Fewer veterans and highly effective teachers tend to leave, because there’s a financial incentive to stay. And because the district has poured more resources into supporting new teachers, officials said retention among that group has improved, too.

Rena Honea, the president of Alliance-AFT, a local teachers’ union, had a different explanation for the decrease in attrition. Teachers, she said, signed on for this school year without realizing they’d be going into school buildings while the coronavirus pandemic raged on. But the district welcomed most students back to school on Oct. 5, with all teachers returning to campus by Sept. 17.

“Our educators really felt like the district would be teaching virtually during the pandemic,” Honea said, pointing to rising COVID-19 case numbers in Dallas County.

The week before students returned to school, a beloved teacher in the district died from COVID-19, stoking teachers’ fears and anxiety. Honea said she had a few teachers call and ask how they could resign midway through the semester, even though the deadline to quit without penalty had already passed.

At that point, the district would have been able to ask the state board of education to impose a sanction, typically the one-year suspension of a teacher’s credentials. But “as a general rule, as long as the reasons are reasonable, we don’t follow that,” Abel said.

HR officials said they’ve had more inquiries from teachers about taking a leave of absence this year but did not see any uptick in teachers actually filing the paperwork. Also, the number of resignations and retirements has not yet spiked after school buildings reopened.

Of course, that might not be entirely voluntary: “Many have stayed because they cannot afford to go somewhere else,” Honea said. “Their families are dependent on them.”
—Madeline Will

A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2020 edition of Education Week as Teachers Said They’d Quit Over COVID-19. Did They?


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