- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 23, 2022

America’s public schools are struggling with a wave of departures by COVID-fatigued teachers just weeks before the first day of class.

The Memphis-Shelby County Schools on Friday held interviews for retired teachers looking to return to the classroom under a new Tennessee law. The 6,000-teacher district has 200 vacancies less than three weeks before school begins.

In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools has 400 teaching vacancies. According to the school system, 1,070 teachers resigned or retired from Sept. 1 to July 7, a 38% increase from 775 during the same period in 2020 and 2021. Only 494 teachers left in the same period in 2018 and 2019 and 444 in 2019 and 2020.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, has called on school systems to recruit more teachers from the military and from historically Black colleges. Teachers in five Atlanta-area districts — Chattanooga County Schools, Commerce City Schools, Jackson County Schools, Jefferson City Schools and Rome City Schools — start this week.

“To me, I feel this is due to pandemic challenges, but also because we have lowered our expectations and the bar on education for students,” Julie Giordano, a Maryland public high school teacher running as a Republican for Wicomico County executive on the state’s Eastern Shore, said Friday. “Teachers are also frustrated that the people making these decisions for schools have not set foot in a classroom since they were students.”

A February poll from the Maryland State Education Association found that 60% of educators were more likely to quit or retire earlier than they had planned because of the pandemic. The state teachers union said large class sizes contributed to increased stress.

National reports of teacher unhappiness and burnout have snowballed in recent months.

An American Federation of Teachers member survey found that the 2021-2022 academic year was “one of the worst years for preK-12 teachers and staff,” with a record-high 79% of school employees expressing dissatisfaction with their working conditions.

In March, the American Psychological Association reported that 49% of K-12 public school teachers surveyed during the pandemic intended to quit the profession. They cited a COVID-era uptick in physical violence and verbal harassment from frustrated families as their reason for quitting.

California-based psychologist Thomas Plante, an APA fellow, said the flood of students returning over the next few weeks could overwhelm teachers who have faced extra stress because of COVID-19.

“Being a schoolteacher now is especially hard when you add up the additional stressors such as COVID and related COVID rules like mask-wearing, online classes for those who are sick, demanding and micromanaging parents and legislators, gun violence in schools, and even death threats in politically divisive and charged environments,” Mr. Plante said Friday.

The nation’s two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the AFT, were not available Friday for comment. An AFT spokesperson referred The Washington Times to a July 16 teacher shortage task force report. In the report, the union calls for increased pay and mental health resources for teachers and recommends de-emphasizing standardized testing to relieve pressure on educators to perform.

“Why do we have a teacher shortage? Because we have a shortage of respect for educators,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.

Reports show test scores have plunged for children who learned at home during the pandemic, adding to the pressure on poor districts to make up lost ground.

A Harvard University report on testing data from 2.1 million students in 10,000 schools released this year found that high-poverty, multicultural public schools spent more weeks in remote instruction during 2020 and 2021 and showed the steepest declines in math and reading scores.

Districts are bracing for a flood of anxious and depressed students returning next month after three years of school closures, mask mandates and learning gaps.

Burbio reported this month that its School Budget Tracker showed a spike in K-12 spending on social emotional learning and mental health resources, including staff and therapeutic support classrooms.

Ray Guarendi, a clinical psychologist in Canton, Ohio, who counsels families, said it’s unfair to expect teachers to handle students’ mental health problems alone.

“They are being asked to teach, discipline, control, do social work and emotionally educate children, many of whom are coming unprepared from their home life,” Mr. Guarendi said. “It is a recipe for frustration prompted by feelings of being asked to do the near impossible without the tools and proper authority.”

In addition to spending more on mental health support to keep veteran teachers, school officials are conducting recruitment drives. At the end of May, the California Center on Teaching Careers, which represents districts in more than half of the state’s counties, launched a “we want you” campaign to fill an estimated 30,000 vacancies across the state.

With more veteran teachers expected to cash in their pensions during the new school year, many districts will have to keep tapping retired teachers and substitutes.

Jim Politis, president of the National Substitute Teachers Alliance, continues at age 82 to serve as a substitute in Montgomery County Public Schools. Before becoming a substitute, he taught full time in the county’s schools. He retired after 32 years in 1999.

“I know Montgomery County has rehired retirees, but I’m too old to go back myself,” Mr. Politis said Friday with a chuckle. “They will kick the recruiting into high gear, but my guess is we’ll wind up 100 teachers short on the first day of school.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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