Teaching From Our Research Center

Teachers Say They’re More Likely to Leave the Classroom Because of Coronavirus

By Madeline Will — June 03, 2020 4 min read
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Two-thirds of educators say they’re concerned about the health implications of resuming in-person instruction in the fall, and some say the coronavirus outbreak—and its dramatic effects on schooling—has increased the likelihood that they will leave the classroom altogether.

A new, nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey polled 1,907 educators—mostly teachers, with 447 principals and 446 district leaders—on their thoughts about returning to school buildings in the fall and whether they want to continue to teach at all. The survey was conducted May 20-28, as educators consider what safety precautions schools will need to take when reopening and how that will change how schools operate.

Teachers now say they—and their colleagues—are more likely to leave the classroom at the end of this school year than they were before the coronavirus pandemic began. A fifth of respondents said they are now “somewhat more” or “much more” likely to leave classroom teaching at the end of the school year. Just 9 percent said they were likely to leave teaching before the coronavirus outbreak.

And 44 percent of teachers said their colleagues were “somewhat more” or “much more” likely to leave classroom teaching since the coronavirus began. (These questions were developed in partnership with Teach For America.)

Teachers have described the abrupt pivot to remote learning as exhausting, and EdWeek survey data has shown that teacher morale has continued to decline over the past couple months. When school buildings do reopen, social distancing measures and safety precautions will dramatically alter the way teachers typically teach.

And many educators are concerned about the health risks of returning to school. Federal data show that about 18 percent of all teachers and 27 percent of all principals are older than age 55. That age group accounts for about 93 percent of deaths in the United States due to COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although adults who are 65 and older are most at risk. Other risk factors include asthma, chronic lung disease, diabetes, serious heart conditions, chronic kidney disease, severe obesity, immunocompromised conditions, and liver disease.

See also: Teachers at Higher Risk of COVID-19 Wonder: Should I Even Go Back?

In the EdWeek survey, 36 percent of educators said they personally have a health condition that puts them at greater risk for illness under COVID-19. Nearly 70 percent said a loved one, who they either live with or see regularly, has a high-risk condition.

More than a fifth of educators said they would leave their job if school buildings reopen and they are diagnosed with a high-risk condition, and 16 percent said they would quit if someone they live with or see often is high-risk.

Fifty-four percent said that nothing related to the coronavirus would cause them to leave their job. Even so, 40 percent of educators said they’re “somewhat concerned” about the health implications of resuming in-person instruction, and 27 percent said they’re “very concerned.”

In open-ended responses, many educators said they could not afford to leave their job. Others said they were already planning on retiring, with a few saying their decision to retire was in part influenced by the pandemic and how it’s changing schools.

Is COVID-19 ‘Exacerbating’ Dissatisfaction?

Nearly three-quarters of respondents said teachers’ morale levels were lower than they had been before the coronavirus outbreak. And already, before school buildings closed down, many teachers were frustrated with low pay and working conditions.

Newly released federal data from the National Teacher and Principal Survey from the 2017-18 school year—the most recent available—found that 28 percent of teachers say the “stress and disappointments involved in teaching at this school aren’t really worth it.” About 35 percent said if they got a better-paying job, they would leave teaching “as soon as possible.” And almost 45 percent said they don’t have as much enthusiasm for teaching as they did when they started.

“I see the COVID crisis as exacerbating [those feelings] in many ways,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University professor of education who studies teachers’ work conditions and satisfaction. “There have been great tributes to teachers, primarily by parents, in how hard the work is. ... At the same time, there are various proposals to make, in many ways, their jobs more challenging.”

The CDC has recommended that when school buildings reopen, all staff wear masks, and classroom desks be spaced six feet apart, facing in the same direction—a far cry from the collaborative classrooms that are often seen in schools. Hands-on instruction will also likely be discouraged.

“I think it’s very unclear, at this point, whether teachers will feel as if they are being treated as professionals, and if they are going to be able to do the kinds of teaching that they prefer, which is essentially interactive and social rather than following more prescriptions and doing it at a distance,” Johnson said.

Still, the nation is in the midst of a steep economic downturn caused by the pandemic. There’s a 14.7 percent unemployment rate—the highest since the Great Recession. Many districts are planning to lay off teachers as states cut education budgets. One analysis found that almost 320,000 teaching jobs could be lost if states cut their education budgets by 15 percent.

Teachers probably won’t leave their jobs if they aren’t sure they will be able to get another one, Johnson said.

“In the short run, we may not have a shortage,” she said. “That doesn’t mean people aren’t demoralized by the conditions. ... If you have no alternative, you may tolerate whatever conditions.”

Image via Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.