For more than a decade, Chasity Robinson worked as an elementary school teacher in Cumberland County. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, she was suddenly thrust into the world of virtual learning, both as a teacher and as the parent of a first grader.
“I was being asked to do 10 times more than I normally would in the classroom while still trying to parent and keep my kid alive,” she said.
“I would have meetings at the same time that he was supposed to be in class. I felt that I wasn’t doing anything well, and I surely wasn’t teaching effectively.”
So, before the start of the 2020-21 school year, Robinson made the difficult decision to leave teaching and pursue a home business full time.
“The resources were nonexistent, and even though I worked for an amazing principal, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to survive mentally through it,” she said.
She’s not alone. According to recent data from the Federal Bureau of Labor and Statistics, North Carolina has lost more than 27,000 education jobs — K-12, higher education and community colleges — this year between February and September.
While some of those losses can be attributed to shifts in student enrollments during the COVID-19 pandemic, evidence has also pointed to educators and school staff leaving the profession due to COVID.
“One of the things that we have been seeing are educators who are very concerned about their safety, particularly having to go back into classrooms, and particularly our educators who are high risk for contracting COVID,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the N.C. Association of Educators.
“They’re deciding that it is unsustainable, or because their requirements for accommodation have been denied, they’re deciding to leave the profession through voluntary resignation or retiring early.”
A complex problem
Some teachers are choosing to leave because they or someone in their home is at higher risk of experiencing complications from COVID, and they don’t feel safe returning to in-person teaching.
Others, like Robinson, find the additional burden associated with virtual teaching — including added preparation work outside the classroom, as well as struggles with technology — either too difficult or unsustainable for their families.
“The scheduling in particular has been difficult, as it has rolled out in late summer and into the fall for K-12, some teachers have had to balance in-person and online instruction, and it’s been incredibly challenging,” said Alisa Chapman, executive director of the Association of Teacher Educators.
Those schedules continue to change, almost weekly, across the state as COVID-19 numbers have increased in several counties. Guilford County Schools, for example, has halted an expanded return to full-day in-person learning for grades K-2 several times due to spikes in virus cases across the county.
“I’ve heard teachers who have very deep concerns around their own personal health,” Chapman said. “Especially those going into the classrooms and schools to teach, and then coming home and mingling with their families.”
Those who have to teach virtually, or in a hybrid of both in-person and virtual, suddenly find their workload doubling without pay increases to compensate for the additional efforts.
“The workloads during the pandemic have increased substantially for educators,” Walker Kelly said. “And because the workload doesn’t balance the rate of pay and the flexibility required to make teaching this way work, some educators are making difficult decisions.”
Chapel Hill-based Chapman, who assesses national education trends in her role with the Association of Teacher Educators, says the problem is not unique to North Carolina.
“Different states are following policies in different ways, depending on how COVID has impacted local communities, states and regions across America,” she said.
“For instance, we’ve seen the pandemic viral loads increase across states now in the Midwest; prior to that the concern was in the Southeast.”
Changing policies in a pandemic
The politicization of education in an election year complicates an already difficult challenge. Many of the state decisions to reopen schools were made along party lines, with Republican-led states returning to in-person instruction at a faster rate than states with Democratic governors.
In North Carolina, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who was reelected to a second term, took a cautious approach to reopening schools, with virtual instruction gradually giving way to in-person learning. His reluctance to fully reopen the way some neighboring states did was repeatedly criticized by the Republican-led state legislature.
Cooper’s tiered approach to reopening also left the final decision of if and when to return to physical school up to each school district leader. With so many parties weighing in on school opening procedures, there’s been a lot of confusion and conflicting information for educators.
“From a policy perspective, this is a huge issue,” Chapman said. “There does seem to be a balance at the policy level with getting children back into formal learning structures beyond online, but at the same time balancing the safety risk with teachers and staff. They’re trying to make the best-informed decisions that they can, but it’s been an issue.”
The ever-changing infection numbers mean decisions change frequently, further complicating teacher and student schedules with last-minute changes to remote or in-person learning.
“The biggest thing I could see policywise that would be helpful is being mindful of providing information and policy changes and decisions in time to give teachers and families time to adjust,” said Kristin Papoi, program director of the Master of Arts of teaching program at UNC Chapel Hill.
“I know people are eager to get back to school as soon as possible, and I support that, but if we could smooth things out to decide what could we expect for, say a year, it would be helpful.”
Education advocates like the NCAE also emphasize the need for more educational funding at a governmental level to help provide the resources and support teachers need, as well as money to recruit and pay teachers competitively.
“It’s important as well to have federal funding to protect provisions to get educators the help they need,” Walker Kelly said.
“We would like to see investing in public education so we can recruit teachers to the profession here in North Carolina and honor what they’re doing.”
With educators choosing to exit an already understaffed education system, the problem of teacher shortages could increase dramatically over the next couple of years.
While some of teachers leaving due to COVID may eventually return to the classroom, many of those taking early retirement are unlikely to return.
“We have a teacher shortage already, and this will exacerbate that if we continue to see more and more retirements and people leaving the profession,” Papoi said.
“It will be important for us to focus on recruitment and teacher retention, putting a lot of focus on early career teachers being engaged and happy, feeling effective and energized in the profession.”
Beyond an overall shortage, a loss of quality educators could mean some schools, particularly those in low-performing or rural districts, don’t have a full-time instructor for certain subjects.
“I have an increasing concern that when it comes to teacher supply and demand across America, particularly in states like North Carolina, the pandemic will exacerbate issues of not having licensed teachers in math and other essential subjects,” Chapman said.
Papoi sees a possible silver lining. This situation presents opportunities for school districts to take lessons they learn during the pandemic to create more flexibility for both teachers and students, she said.
“How are we thinking about the use of time in schools?” Papoi said.
“We might be more creative with how we’re using students’ time in schools now that we have infrastructure for flexibility to engage in the online and offline world. There’s an opportunity to look at how students are taking ownership of things on their own rather than schools just delivering curriculum.”
She hopes school districts can learn from the difficulties and mistakes during the pandemic to better support educators and students.
“What we really need to pay attention to is the social and emotional needs of students and teachers,” she said. “How we are going to take care of one another after we’ve been collectively through this?”
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