Teaching Profession

How COVID-19 Is Hurting Teacher Diversity

By Madeline Will — September 14, 2020 10 min read
Karen Lewis sits outside her home on Sept. 13. She was one of about 100 teachers and social workers in the Schenectady, N.Y., district who were recently laid off via a Zoom call.
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The Schenectady, N.Y., school district realized it needed to do better by its students of color: The vast majority of its teachers were white, while less than a third of students are. A couple years ago, the district began ramping up its efforts to hire more teachers of color, as well as provide anti-racist training for its staff.

The Albany-area district was highlighted by the state education department and other groups for its efforts, which included recruiting a more diverse pool of educators, building relationships with historically Black colleges and universities, and creating affinity spaces to help educators of color feel supported once on staff.

It seemed like momentum was gaining. But earlier this month, more than 100 teachers and social workers, most of whom were hired during this recent push for diversity, logged onto a Zoom call and were told they no longer had jobs. Altogether, the district, which has been hit with statewide budget cuts, has laid off 320 educators, nearly half of whom are educators of color.

Until then, for the most part, working at the district “felt like the dream that any socially conscious teacher would want to be a part of,” said Karen Lewis, a Black kindergarten teacher who was laid off. “For me, that’s the hardest blow. The potential was just, in a day, gone. … [Students here have] been neglected and disenfranchised for years, and we had an opportunity to change that, and boom, it was snatched [away from us].”

Thousands of teachers have been laid off this spring and summer as districts reel from state budget cuts due to the coronavirus pandemic, and experts have predicted that without a substantial federal bailout, the layoffs will continue throughout the year and accelerate next spring. Teacher layoffs are devastating for any school community—but an unintended consequence is often a further eroding of the diversity of the teaching force, which is already about 80 percent white.

When districts have only recently started actively recruiting teachers of color, layoffs that are based on a “last in, first out” policy of seniority can unravel those new initiatives. Those policies are often supported by teachers’ unions, which say that seniority is a transparent and objective standard. But other experts say such policies are chipping away at hard-fought progress to a more diverse workforce.

“Teachers of color are not afforded the privilege of longevity,” said Travis Bristol, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. Teachers of color on average turn over at higher rates than white teachers.

At least 16 states require tenure or seniority status to be used as the primary factor for layoff decisions, while another 16 states require teacher evaluation scores to be the main consideration, according to an analysis by the Education Commission of the States. At least nine states prohibit the use of seniority as the primary or sole factor. Some states leave it up to individual districts.

Following the Great Recession—when 300,000 teachers were laid off, according to some estimates—some states moved away from last in, first out policies. But Katharine Strunk, a professor at Michigan State University who studies education labor markets, said that trend has slowed in recent years.

Research shows that when districts lay off teachers by seniority, poor schools and schools with large populations of Black and Latino students are hardest hit. Teachers of color tend to work in schools that serve a high proportion of students of color.

And churn among the teaching staff can result in lower academic outcomes and decreased teacher quality, Strunk said.

“The equity implications for our most traditionally underserved districts is just astounding,” she said.

‘A Sledgehammer’

In light of a massive budget shortfall, New York state is withholding 20 percent of its funding to school districts across the state, causing already cash-strapped districts, like Schenectady, to eliminate hundreds of positions.

An across-the-board cut affects the Schenectady City district, which relies heavily on state aid, much more than affluent districts, said Acting Superintendent Aaron Bochniak in an interview. In the nearly 10,000-student district, 79 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged.

“[The cut] might be a sledgehammer for us, but just a tiny play hammer for others,” Bochniak said.

Bochniak has laid off or eliminated the positions of more than 200 paraprofessionals and more than 100 teachers and social workers. He plans to issue more pink slips to administrators on Sept. 16, and there could be yet another round after that.

The layoffs have been devastating. During the Zoom call in which teachers were told they were being laid off, there was a lot of crying, Lewis said. District officials said they’d try to bring the staff back as soon as possible if they were able to secure more funding. But Lewis said she has nothing in writing to assure her of that.

“All the teachers [who] were cut were new,” she said. “We’re the most diverse group, that’s all gone—we’re all gone. What I was told was, ‘It wasn’t intentional,’ but ignorance doesn’t excuse [it].”

New York requires districts to “primarily” lay off educators based on seniority, and Bochniak said Schenectady only considers seniority and content area. But those measures don’t take into account the district’s goals of diversity and cultural competency. A third of students are Black, while 27 percent are white, 19 percent are Hispanic, and 17 percent are Asian, district data show.

Research has shown that having a teacher of color can increase learning for Black and Latino students and foster their social and emotional development.

“We had a very intense focus on diversifying our staff. … Over the last two years, we’ve strived toward that goal, [and] it’s a slow process,” Bochniak said. “When we’re faced with these budget concerns like this, it really wipes away all the work we’ve done in one quick stroke.”

According to a district spokeswoman, nearly 24 percent were Black, 9 percent were Asian, and another 9 percent were Hispanic. The Daily Gazette reported that last year, just 4 percent of district faculty were Black, almost 3 percent were Hispanic, and 2 percent were Asian.

In recent years, the Schenectady district had also provided anti-racist training for its staff and emphasized cultural competency, and Bochniak said the teachers who were let go were likely a key part in those initiatives.

“We lose the momentum we’ve built with that staff,” he said. “While they hold all that knowledge, that knowledge might be transferred to another school district.”

Bochniak said he thinks the district should be pushing for changes to the last in, first out policy—both in terms of advocacy at the state level and during the collective bargaining process with the teachers’ union. He said layoff determinations should consider characteristics other than seniority, “and race might be one of them, … so if this were to happen again, God forbid, we’re not in the same place, and we’re built on more of a firm foundation.”

In Brookline, Mass., about 300 educators were laid off at the end of May to help close a gaping budget shortfall. Graciela Mohamedi, a Latina high school physics teacher, was one of them. In the past few years, the district had ramped up its recruitment of teachers of color to better match its student population—and under the last in, first out policy, many of those teachers were let go.

“They like to talk about diversity a whole lot, and they like to talk about things they could do to make it better,” Mohamedi said. “They aren’t actually willing to do the real honest work in order to retain educators of color.”

Ultimately, the district was able to recall the laid off staff a month later. But Mohamedi said the ordeal has had lasting consequences for the community.

“There were a lot of educators of color who chose not to go back simply because of the fact they felt like they had been so mistreated,” she said. “It was a culmination of years and years of living with race-related stress in the workshop.”

Even so, Mohamedi, the community relations chair for Brookline Educators United, the local teachers’ union, doesn’t think eliminating seniority protections is the answer. She said seniority protections have historically protected marginalized populations, and they have allowed teachers of color to have long careers in the district.

“That kind of experience needs to be preserved, because it’s vital for the new educators of color to learn from these people,” she said.

Mohaemdi is on the coordinating team for the African Latinx Asian Native American caucus of the BEU, and she hopes to find other solutions that account for maintaining diversity levels in schools.

‘Quality Blind’

Still, Qorsho Hassan, a Black 4th grade teacher who is Somali American, said seniority protections are barriers to building a more diverse teacher workforce.

She was laid off twice in her three years at the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district in Burnsville, Minn. The first time was for a week. The second time, she was a finalist for the Minnesota 2020 Teacher of the Year, and she was told she could be hired back in a non-classroom position.

Hassan, who prides herself on building strong relationships with all her students, declined and found a job in a neighboring school district. She has since been named the state’s Teacher of the Year.

“It really shows you that these contractual [provisions] that are in place, they are quality blind, and they affect educators of color more than they should—and therefore, they affect kids of color,” she said.

“We’re recruited left and right, but they can’t retain us,” Hassan said, adding that layoff policies are one piece of the puzzle. She would like districts to instead base decisions on the demographics of the school communities and keep staff that represents students.

Some districts are working to move away from seniority-based layoffs. The Madison, Wis., district has proposed basing layoff decisions more on qualifications such as teacher-evaluation scores, cultural competency, certifications, and proficiency in a second language, along with seniority. Cultural competency could include language, demographics, and experience working in diverse schools, said board member Savion Castro.

“When you look at our seniority chart, as you go down to more recent teachers, we see more teachers of color because we’re finally putting resources into recruiting those teachers,” said Castro, who supports the proposed changes. “Districts are finally waking up: We need more Black and brown teachers in our schools.”

But those teachers could be on the chopping block if the Madison district has to issue pink slips. There is a looming $8 million budget deficit in the district, and the potential for more budget cuts from the state legislature, although Castro said layoffs are not an “imminent threat.” (Currently, teachers’ contracts prevent them from being laid off midyear, although the district also wants to change that policy to give just 30 days notice to teachers at risk of losing their jobs.)

The school board has told district administrators to work with the local teachers’ union to come up with the details of a layoff rubric by November. The union, Madison Teachers Inc., doesn’t outright oppose having a qualifications-based framework for layoffs but has concerns.

“The benefits of seniority are that it’s a solid, fact-based decision-making process,” said MTI President Andy Waity, adding that evaluation scores can be “inconsistently applied, inconsistently followed through.”

“When it gets down to the spot of, ‘Are you going to be laid off or not?’ you want to know what the standards are and how exactly you’re being evaluated, and I think that’s critical for folks,” Waity said. “They need to have a clear, transparent way of identifying how these decisions are made.”

Waity said there need to be “thoughtful discussions” around these decisions, and he doesn’t want to rush because of the COVID-19 economic crisis.

That economic downturn will force districts that are committed to racial justice to get creative, Rita Kohli, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside, who studies teachers of color, wrote in an email.

“If we understand a diverse teaching force as a necessity for the success of students of color,” she wrote, “then how can we deem this issue as essential and not just an additive program that flows with the economic tide?”

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2020 edition of Education Week as How COVID-19 Is Hurting Teacher Diversity


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