By Michael SainatoTeachers around the United States are quitting or retiring early as schools have reopened for the new academic year and Covid-19 cases among children have surged in recent weeks in the face of some states banning mask mandates.
There have been more than 200,000 reported weekly cases among children in the past five consecutive weeks, with most cases spreading in areas with no school mask mandates in place and low vaccination rates, as vaccines for children under age 12 are still pending federal approval.
Several schools and school districts have periodically been forced to close in-person learning because of Covid exposure or high infection rates, leaving teachers struggling to continue their lessons through the disruptions.
A shortage of teachers in the US was already a growing problem before the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly in high poverty schools. The shortage has worsened during the pandemic. Some schools have closed when too many teaching positions could not be filled, while others grapple with higher than normal teacher vacancies, leaving remaining teachers overworked.
In Florida, teacher vacancies this year increased by more than 67% compared with August 2020, and a 38.7% increase from August 2019.
Amanda Tower, an elementary school teacher in Collier county, Florida, resigned from her position before the 2021-2022 school year, which would have been the start of her 12th year of teaching.
She said her school district stopped consistently applying Covid-19 safety protocols, the classrooms were tightly packed and poorly ventilated, students were not required to mask and often came into class while sick, and teachers were receiving significant pushback from science deniers. She said changes in curriculum, training, and new mandated procedures with poor communication or direction from administration were further reasons that prompted her resignation.
“I needed a change for my physical and mental health and that of my family, some of whom have conditions that make them vulnerable to Covid. There was a lack of transparency in the reported numbers and the push to do business as normal. It was all far too much,” said Tower. “I did not want to be a martyr. I loved my job. I’ll miss my kids, but I can’t pour from an empty vessel.”
Nearly 10% of teachers in Providence, Rhode Island, either quit or retired early from the city’s school district before the school year began. Public schools in Michigan saw a 44% increase in midyear teacher retirements this past school year over the 2019-2020 school year. In Fort Worth, Texas, the school district had 314 vacant teacher jobs at the beginning of this school year, compared with 71 at the 2019-2020 school year, before the pandemic.
Bethany Olson, a high school teacher in Kentucky, resigned from her teaching position in August 2021 after losing her father to Covid-19 in June.
“Covid made it untenable to continue,” said Olson. “The reality is that school cannot truly be safe during this pandemic because we have so many who can’t, or won’t, get vaccinated, and we’ve returned to overflowing classrooms as if the pandemic has ended.”
After 19 years, Leigh Hart resigned from her elementary school teaching job in Maryland before the start of this school year, citing aggressive parents during the pandemic and insurmountable workloads.
“At some point the realization hits you that you’re giving way more than you’ll ever get back,” said Hart. “I love the kids. I love the challenge and the realization that you actually can make a difference. But it’s truly disheartening to know how little you’re valued.”
“They don’t give us numbers or report it but we see in our buildings how we’re all needed to sub for missing teachers. It’s way more than normal,” said Steven Singer, a middle school teacher in western Pennsylvania. “I, myself, was in and out of the hospital last week due to my Crohn’s disease. The stress of the pandemic is taking a toll on me and all of us. We’re just at a breaking point. This crisis for teachers didn’t start with Covid. We have low pay, low respect, low autonomy, and no one listens to us. Now we’re being forced to risk our lives and our health.”
Cathy Bullington, an elementary school art teacher in Bedford, Indiana, is preparing to retire early because of the difficulty of teaching during the pandemic and because teachers have been left out of the decision-making processes, problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Teaching during the pandemic has been the most difficult thing I have had to do in my 30-year teaching career. Nothing prepares you for this. We had no plan for this and now the plan keeps changing,” said Bullington. “Teachers are leaving because they are exhausted, stressed and underpaid. We have had a lot more demands put on us.”