The COVID-19 pandemic has added significant pressure on many aspects of the American economy, especially the educators in the public school system. Teachers are expected to either risk their health by teaching crowded classrooms of students in person or to increase their workload and expenses by using remote technology to instruct students in a virtual classroom. They are asked to do both within their limited knowledge base and budget and without extra compensation or support. This increased pressure on public school teachers has added more stress to an already high-stress profession.
According to a November 2020 Horace Mann survey of 1,240 K-12 educators, 59% do not feel secure with their school district’s health and safety precautions, 77% say they are working more now than they were a year ago, and 60% feel less satisfied with their job now compared to a year ago. 27% of the educators in the Horace Mann report are now considering either changing professions, retiring early, or taking a leave of absence due to their concerns with the coronavirus pandemic. The report also noted:
Before the pandemic, large numbers of U.S. educators were already leaving the profession due to the financial pressure the job puts on their lives. Educators’ salaries have been falling further behind the compensation of their college-educated peers, while educators’ college costs (and the resulting student loans) have risen sharply. As a result, many educators find their debt burdens can feel insurmountable and delay or prevent the achievement of other life goals, such as starting a family, buying a house, or saving for retirement… Then COVID-19 came along. (p. 2)
The impact of COVID-19 on the public school system highlights issues that have long been of concern for many K-12 teachers for quite some time now. Over the past several years tens of thousands of teachers have gone on strike for improved pay and adequate school funding. Improved pay would help to alleviate the financial concerns and benefit gaps alluded to in the Horace Mann report, while adequate school funding could a long way toward conducting smaller class sizes by hiring more teachers, not to mention providing teachers and students with better learning equipment. Smaller class sizes would be ideal in a pandemic situation where physical distancing is vital.
Despite the financial burden many teachers face, a new research report by the RAND Corporation found that stress–even before the pandemic–is the main reason why teachers are leaving the profession. In a survey of nearly 1,000 former public school teachers conducted for the report, RAND discovered that 55% of the respondents left in the two years leading up to the pandemic, while 45% left after the pandemic started in March 2020. Of those teachers who left the profession early and voluntarily before and during the pandemic, 43% listed “stress and the disappointments of teaching” as their main overall reason for leaving, while only 24% listed insufficient pay. Insufficient pay didn’t even make the top 3 reasons for leaving teaching, both before and during the pandemic.
Nearly three-quarters of the teachers in the RAND survey who left the profession after the pandemic began left early and voluntarily. Almost half (44%) of this group listed COVID-19 as their primary reason for leaving. A majority (64%) of respondents who left for COVID-19-related reasons chose “pay wasn’t sufficient to merit the risks or stress” as one of the eleven multiple COVID-19-related reasons that were provided on survey question #6, while 21% singled out the same answer as the biggest reason in the very next question of the survey.
Stress even topped the list for teachers who said they left for non-pandemic-related reasons. It was one of the two most common reasons selected for leaving along with a dislike for the way things were run at their school. Teachers who left for COVID-19-related reasons and those who left for non-pandemic-related reasons did agree that teaching was not worth the pay for the amount of stress involved–no matter what triggered that stress.
In an article from Education Week, Heather Schwartz, the director of the Pre-K-12 educational programs at RAND and an author of the report, said, “Stress, stress, stress–that seems at the heart of teachers’ decision to leave.” She went on to add, “COVID has fanned the flames of stress.”