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326 Arizona Teachers Resign, Retire Due To COVID-19 As Severe Teacher Shortage Continues

Published: Thursday, September 17, 2020 - 5:50pm
Updated: Friday, September 18, 2020 - 11:34am
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The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase of teachers leaving their jobs before or just after school started, according to an annual survey released Thursday by Arizona School Personnel Administration Association, which finds that the state is facing a severe teacher shortage for a sixth year in a row.

At this time last year, more than 400 teachers severed their employment before the start of the school year or during the first month, said Justin Wing, the association's data coordinator. This year, that number rose to 751. Out of those teachers, 326 cited COVID-19 as their primary reason for resigning or retiring. 

Another 138 teachers are taking a full-year, unpaid leave of absence for the same reason. 

“The real issue is not them leaving necessarily cause some of them have warranted reasons," Wing said. "The real issue is because of the teacher shortage, we have no one in our back pocket to replace them the following week when we have kids in that classroom.”

About 28% of teacher vacancies across the state this year remain unfilled while half of the vacancies are filled by teachers who do not meet the state’s standard certification requirements, according the survey. 

Arizona teacher pay remains one of the lowest in the country, despite recent raises over the past couple years, Wing said.

"We had this deep hole, we dug ourselves up a little bit but we are not out of the hole yet," he said. "We're still in the bottom five of average teacher salaries, we are still in the bottom five in education funding, we're still in the top in highest class sizes in nation and all of those are what matters." 

The inability to offer competitive salaries severely limits public schools from attracting the best and the brightest teacher candidates and Arizona’s leaders must make a collective effort to ensure the recruitment and retention of effective teachers through increased funding, the association said. 

Wing thinks it's also important to identify why young people aren't interested in going into the teaching field, and once the state finds those root causes, it needs to address them. 

Other Survey Findings 

Almost 1,000 other school staffers have also resigned, retired or taken a leave of absence due to COVID-19 concerns. 

The survey also asked the 145 school districts and charter schools that participated if they've experience a decrease in student enrollment. One hundred and six responded yes. Wing said this is concerning because districts and charter schools' revenue is dependent on enrollment numbers. 

"I do know that the governor's CARES dollars, the federal CARES dollars is going to help stabilize funding for this school year but it's the following year where there's concerns," Wing said. 

'No Other Alternative'

This summer Gary Cort resigned as a physics teacher for Great Hearts Academies charter schools. The 69-year-old said his age and other health complications make him vulnerable to COVID-19. He had asked administrators to let him teach remotely. 

“The response was that that was not possible under their model and at that point I felt I had no other alternative but to resign," he said. 

Cort said the decision to quit was easy for him because teaching was a post-retirement job for him, and leaving it wouldn't put his family in economic peril, but he knows that's not the case for younger teachers who need the salary and insurance benefits to support their families. 

KJZZ asked Great Hearts to comment on Cort's request for accommodation and it sent this statement:

"Great Hearts has an accommodation process in place to address employee requests. This process has been used in relation to requests for reasonable accommodations related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to providing these accommodations, Great Hearts has also partnered with a local testing lab to provide unlimited COVID-19 testing to all of our faculty and staff in order to detect and contain any potential COVID cases. Great Hearts strongly disagrees with the former employee’s characterization of events related to his employment and notes that the employee left Great Hearts in the earliest stages of developing the enhanced distance learning program for this academic year. Per Great Hearts policy, we will not comment further on individual personnel issues."

For more about these results, The Show spoke with Christine Thompson, president and CEO of Expect More Arizona.

CHRISTINE THOMPSON: Well, you know, it's, it's another year in a row where we can see that the teacher recruitment and retention crisis is really having a massive impact on, on schools. And we expected to see, you know, some changes due to COVID. But, you know, we're, we're still in the midst of a, of a real crisis in the in the teaching profession, I think that bears out by the numbers.

MARK BRODIE: How much blame do you put on COVID for what we've seen?

THOMPSON: Well, I think what's interesting is they actually asked that question — the Arizona Personnel Administrators Association asked those questions. How many were leaving specifically to, for, for COVID? And I think when you look at separations for employment, teachers who didn't report to work at the start of the year is doubled. Teachers who resigned regardless of reason has nearly doubled. And I think those things you see in part are due to COVID, but it's also in part due to just the stress of the situation. When you look at how teacher vacancies are being dealt with this year, you have vacancies collapsed with an existing teacher, so their class size is now exceeding the school size limits — that went from 65 last year to 100. If you look at vacancies filled by having teachers not have a planning period, so working up what they're called a six-fifths contract, you went from 453 last year to 668 this year. So not only are our teachers being asked to juggle pandemic teaching virtually, which is a challenge, they're being asked to do more with less prep time — paid prep time — and they're being asked to do it with more kids in their classroom. So it's, it's not just to showing up, but it's also the, the pressures on those teachers. And I'm concerned about how many'll, will, will stay with the profession.

BRODIE: Well, I'm curious about that, because given the fact that a lot of Arizona schools are just now starting to have in-person instruction, do you think that there's a chance that more teachers, once they see what that looks like and maybe don't like what they see, that more teachers will leave coming up?

THOMPSON: I think there could be that possibility, but I think teachers are so committed to their, to their classrooms and to their students and really have a bond with their communities, I think we're more likely to see it at natural inflection points. So either at semester appropriately or at end of year when their contract ends. So I think we will see some more. And, and we'll, we'll see districts reacting, to, to how they are handling teachers, dealing with health issues and other things. Because I know some districts are trying to balance teachers who can, who can teach virtually who might have health conditions of their own. Others are having everybody go back to classrooms and in-person. So it's a mix depending on district. I think we will see more, but I also think that we're going to see it in the retention numbers next year, too.

BRODIE: So Arizona has obviously been in the midst of giving teachers a pay raise as part of the governor's 20 by 2020 plan. Is it too much of a stretch to say that increased salary is not enough right now to keep teachers in the classroom?

THOMPSON: Well, I think it's, I think it's a little bit of everything. And we've been championing for this for a significant period of time. When any of us are going to work, it's not just the love of our job that keeps us there, it's not just the pay that keeps us there. It's a mix of all those things. It's, it's compensation packages. It's, it's love of the work. It is the professional development and the support systems that you have in place in your, in your community. So I think all of these things contribute to the crisis that we have in the teacher workforce. So teacher pay has been slowly increasing over the years, but we're still some of the lowest pay in the, in the country for teachers and teachers who are, who are highly educated individuals can also go to other like-professions and get paid more than they do in the teacher profession. And when you think about being asked to do more work with less time to prepare, with less resources to prepare or even to double down for those teachers who are going to be doing both virtual and in-person with a large load of students, that's like, that's like doubling your load of teaching. So I think all of these things are, are putting pressures on this profession in in really pointed ways that we're seeing now with the, with the COVID crises even more.

BRODIE: Now, obviously, even if a teacher leaves their job, the students still show up. And the survey also found that there are a lot of long-term subs and other kinds of folks like that who are filling these, these classroom positions. What kind of impact is that having on the students who are in those classes?

THOMPSON: Yeah. It's not just long-term subs, it's also people who are emergency-certified. So to be emergency — to get an emergency sub certificate, you don't even have to have a bachelor's degree. So, you know, those emergency certifications are, "We need to get a warm body in the classroom," and right now there are 894.8 vacancies filled by individuals who've received either emergency teaching cert or an emergency substitute certification. And really what that means is you've got people in front of the classroom who might be well-intentioned but who, who haven't been trained to be an educator. And I think everyone who has kids last semester as COVID hit or even this semester as we're trying to juggle family and learning and, you know, virtual learning at home, we're all seeing, you know, how much expertize and skill it takes to really help students succeed. And I'm, I'm deeply concerned that that number continues to grow. Last year, the vacancies filled by those with emergency certs was 742. This year, we've got a 150 more. And that is massively problematic for our first students because they're not getting the best education possible.

BRODIE: All right. That is Christine Thompson, president and CEO of the group Expect More Arizona. Christine, as always, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

THOMPSON: Nice talking to you. Thanks.


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