The COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to virtual learning by nearly all Washington, D.C.-area school districts has not triggered a wave of teacher retirements or resignations, despite warnings from teacher unions and advocates earlier in the year. The shuttering of school buildings and in-person classes has created a series of unprecedented hurdles and strains on school teachers, but they have not yet produced large scale turnover in public schools staffing.
According to a News4 I-Team review of public school staffing records in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., teacher turnover dropped in the fall of 2020 compared to prior years. But internal school district surveys show a wave of resignations could be looming for the spring of 2021.
In Prince George’s County Public Schools, district records show the number of employees who applied for leaves of absence have plummeted this year. There were 573 workers who sought leave between June and October 2019 but less than 170 who did so between June and October 2020.
In neighboring Montgomery County Public Schools and Howard County Public Schools, the number of employees who sought leave during the summer and early autumn of 2020 dropped by nearly 50% from prior years, internal school records showed.
Though Fairfax County Public Schools showed a minor increase in teachers requesting leave from 2019, Prince William County Public Schools said zero of its employees had sought leave before the start of school in September.
Teacher retirements and resignations showed little change from prior years in any of those counties, according to the I-Team review of school separation reports, which are provided to local school boards or obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Local teachers’ unions and associations warned of a potential boom in staff departures due to the series of serious complications caused by COVID-19, including the development of virtual lessons, the stress of balancing home and work responsibilities and the unprecedented disruption of traditional learning methods for children.
In September, a survey by an association of Fairfax County Public Schools teachers said, “52.9% of respondents are considering whether to take a leave of absence or resign if asked to return to work in person.”
Though the wave of departures has not yet materialized, it could still be forming and threatening to break in early 2021, according to a series of interviews and a review of internal school district staff surveys by the I-Team.
Robyn Mejia, a fifth grade teacher in Fairfax County, said the stress and strain of this school year is quickly accumulating and frustrating some local teachers. “I'm hearing lots of friends very stressed,” Mejia said. “I have several friends who've taken leave of absence, who have cut their hours and are going part time. In my situation, I can't cut my hours. So, it’s going to be a balancing act.”
Karl Kidd, a teacher at Sugarloaf Elementary School in Frederick County, said teachers with school-aged children at home are facing destabilizing challenges in balancing responsibilities during virtual learning. Kidd, who is a father of four, said, “It's going to be a three-ring circus in our house. You know, I, all working parents are going to face that same obstacle.”
Internal surveys by local school systems indicate staff turnover might increase if more school buildings are reopened for in-person learning amid the pandemic.
A D.C. Public Schools survey of staff showed 45% of respondents said they would very unlikely or somewhat unlikely to return to school, when buildings reopen in the District. A large majority of those teachers cited personal health concerns, safety concerns or childcare complications as their reason.
“If they have a serious health condition — and many of our experienced teachers do — they simply don’t want that burden placed on them,” said Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union.
Staff surveys provided by Prince William County Public Schools said nearly 76% of employees responded their biggest concern with returning to school buildings was “physical health and safety.” The July survey results also said, “Many expressed concerns with juggling their work and home responsibilities.”
In June, nearly half of the 17,000 Montgomery County Public Schools staffers who responded to a district survey said they would prefer to have an option to work virtually. The school system has initiated a new survey to gauge updated opinions of staff.
Former Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr said there is an increasing risk of veteran teachers departing because of the combination of virtual learning stress and health concerns once in-person learning resumes. Starr also said newer teachers may quit because of the large-scale disruption they’re experiencing at the beginning of their careers.
“I’m concerned about whether people will see it as a profession they want to stay in,” Starr said. “We already have attrition. This could exacerbate it.”
Prince George’s County Public Schools said they have created programs and services to help teachers succeed amid the disruptions and stresses of virtual learning. A spokeswoman said the school system provided “(teachers) the ability to teach from their homes or from their school buildings and provided technical support and training for educators to assist with distance learning.”
Amid concerns of teacher turnover, several major school districts are continuing — or increasing — teacher recruitment efforts. In Howard County Public Schools, a spokesman said the school system is conducting virtual outreach to prospective staffers. The spokesman said human resources official will be attending and hosting virtual recruitment events and virtual job fairs.
A Loudoun County Public Schools spokesman said the school district is also conducting virtual job fairs and extending “early contract offers” to prospective hires.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, shot by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper, and edited by Steve Jones.