'It feels wrong': Fear of mass teacher retirements due to COVID-19 may have been overblown
Jan Robertson has taught "pretty much everything" for the past 40 years: outdoor education, science, and teacher coaching.
But the coronavirus pandemic has left Robertson, like colleagues across the country, having to weigh up whether to prioritize their health or the job of their dreams. After being told that she would likely be teaching a classroom this fall, she made the "heartbreaking" decision to quit her job as a science teacher in a school district in Northern California.
At 64, she "didn't want to go back to a classroom where I'm old enough to be on that list of (risk factors)," she said.
Robertson isn't the only one feeling embroiled in a decision - a third of teachers told Education Week in July that they were more or more likely to quit their jobs this year, compared with just 8% who did the job in one typical year leave.
While this survey may reflect the feelings of teachers over the summer, a review of pension and staff numbers in some of the first states to resume classes this year suggests that fears of a mass exodus of retired teachers may have been exaggerated.
For example, in Tennessee, 1,307 teachers had applied for retirement by September, state records show. This number has decreased by 31% compared to the same period last year.
And in Indiana, another early opening state, the 1,572 teachers who retired by September are 5% lower than last year according to the Indiana Public Retirement System.
Between COVID-19 and layoffs, schools may not have enough teachers to make it through the year
In contrast, New York State saw an increase in retirements, particularly in the weeks leading up to the new school year.
In total, the state teacher pension system reported 5,728 retirements between April and the beginning of August, an increase of 4% compared to the same period last year. However, towards the end of summer, interest grew. In July and early August, 640 teachers submitted their papers for retirement, a 20% increase over 2019 at the same time.
Yonkers, N.Y., elementary school teacher Irene Bordes, 66, of Cortlandt Manor, made the decision to retire early because of concerns about COVID-19 and to help her son and daughter-in-law with childcare for their three grandchildren. Bordes is playing a memory card game with her granddaughters, Sammie, 5, and Charlotte, 8, at their family's home in Yorktown Heights on August 26, 2020.
Irene Bordes was one of them. After teaching in a suburban New York elementary school for 24 years, she decided to retire in August. Her two sons had urged their 66-year-old mother not to risk getting sick.
"They were very concerned about my health," Bordes told The Journal News last month. “There are so many things in the air and plans change from day to day. It came down to a family decision. "
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Educators' concerns about being exposed to the virus in the classroom are not theoretical. Thousands of students and teachers across the country have already been quarantined due to school breakouts.
However, for some teachers, COVID-19 was a collective call ensuring their return to the classroom. Luz Hernandez, 49, said it was crucial for her to return to her Milwaukee elementary school, where most of her students are Latino and on the wrong side of the digital learning divide.
She taught from her dining room table last semester after schools closed, but returned to her classroom where she has more resources to start this year, even though Milwaukee schools reopened with virtual classes.
"Teachers had the option to either teach from home or come into our classrooms and teach," she said. But she spends most of the nights at the same kitchen table, "taking calls at home at night and only communicating with her parents".
While concerns about COVID-19 caused some teachers to consider retirement, fourth grade teacher Lindsey Earle came up with a novel approach: building an outdoor classroom at Prairie Hill Waldorf School in Pewaukee, Wisconsin.
Her superintendent recently announced to her district that due to the rising rate of coronavirus infections in Milwaukee, the virtual class will be held indefinitely. Hernandez cannot retire until he is 55. "Retirement is not an option for me right now," but she said she has no doubt about going back to school this year.
"It never crossed my mind not to come and do what I signed up to do 25 years ago," she added.
Committed teachers are in great demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics August report shows that 7.6 million people are employed in "community education," a category that encompasses the majority of public school employees. This is the country's lowest number of school employees in almost 20 years, an effect that is being felt in schools across the country.
In Arizona, a new poll of 145 school districts found that approximately 28% of teaching positions in the state were vacant weeks after the school year started, compared with 21% the previous year.
And in Lee County in southwest Florida, schools didn't feel the bite of early retirement, just typical annual sales. The school district of 6,100 teachers needed 438 new hires before the August 31st school year, Superintendent Greg Adkins said.
"We have actively recruited, but unfortunately we are still losing teachers," he said. "I think people come to the conclusion," Do I really still want to do this? "
Too many factors have contributed to teachers being safer in class than at Walmart
Whitney Reddick, a special education teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, holds a sign that reads "I am a teacher, not a martyr" after participating in a march protesting schools opening during the pandemic, which ended in a cemetery .
COVID-19 doesn't make these conversations any easier.
Anne Ham taught language arts and theater in Kansas, Illinois and Oklahoma for 39 years, where she practically taught at Norman Public Schools for the last nine weeks of classes in the spring semester following the COVID-19 success.
Ham, 61, had planned to retire in another year, but she has asthma. In addition, her husband is 73 years old - a "very high risk" category in itself.
Because of these factors, she made the decision to leave early rather than endangering her health, even though she did not feel she had a choice.
"Teaching was a big part of my identity," Ham said, adding that she missed her friends - most of whom are teachers - and felt guilty about not going back to her students. "I have to find my purpose again."
Jessica Sevilla, a former seventh-grade math teacher in Martin County on Florida's east coast, echoed these concerns. She was used to missing lunch because a student had to speak; staying a long time to talk to parents; and get to work early to give a student extra time to study.
But she has health problems and back to school wasn't a risk she wanted to take, she told TCPalm, part of the USA TODAY Network, last month.
"Making a decision where I didn't put my students first but put myself first is a strange feeling," she said. "It feels wrong."
Contributors: Lily Altavena, Republic of Arizona; Joseph Spector, The Journal News, Summer Brugal, Treasure Coast Newspapers, Pamela McCabe, The News-Press
This article originally appeared in the US TODAY: The fear of mass teachers dropping out of COVID-19 may be exaggerated
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