More teachers and school staff left their positions this year before classes started with COVID-19 playing a key role in their decisions, an annual survey indicated.
The Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association survey of 145 public school districts and charter schools found that 751 teachers left their positions by Aug. 31, 2020. Of those, 326 teachers resigned or retired citing COVID-19 as the primary reason, and an additional 138 teachers took a full-year, unpaid leave of absence due to COVID-19.
“Last year, we had over 400 teachers leave their job through the first month of the year. This year, there were about 750,” said Justin Wing, past president of ASPAA, which has done this survey for the past six years. “The extra 300 plus happens to be roughly the same amount of teachers who separated employment due to COVID reasons.”
Slightly more than 80 percent of teachers who left their positions held a standard teacher certificate, which shows “that Arizona’s highly qualified educators continue to leave the profession,” Supt. of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said.
“While COVID-19 certainly impacted our teacher workforce this year, Arizona’s educators have left the classroom at alarming numbers for six straight years,” Supt. Hoffman said. “It’s clear we must do more to address the persistent educator shortage, which is why I will continue to advocate for dedicated state funding to support educator recruitment and retention policies, like paid family medical leave, in the upcoming legislative session.”
School districts in Arizona’s rural and remote areas have been dealing with a shortage of teachers long before it became an issue statewide, said David Y. Verdugo, superintendent of Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District No. 35, which serves students in rural communities along I-19 from Amado to Rio Rico in Santa Cruz County.
“As a rural district, it is traditionally more difficult to recruit and retain teachers for various reasons,” Supt. Verdugo said. “Young teachers are looking for a bigger community with amenities, and it can be similar for young families.”
Despite efforts to recruit and retain teachers, “as a state, we have not made any strides in improving the severe teacher shortage,” Wing said.
Health and learning models concern teachers
Teachers have expressed concerns about health protocols and instructing students through a different model, Supt. Verdugo said.
“Many teachers are concerned that protocols will be difficult to follow for students, such as wearing masks and social distancing – especially in the younger grade levels,” Supt. Verdugo said. “This in turn concerns them that there will be an outbreak of COVID-19 despite our best efforts to return safely.”
“There is also the stress of teaching in a different model, such as the hybrid model,” Supt. Verdugo said. “Only having half of the students on a given day, while the others work remotely is going to be a challenge. In planning, teachers believe it is going to be difficult to provide continuity of learning.”
Yet, students, families, teachers and school staff have come together during this time and that makes Supt. Verdugo proud of their school community.
“It has not been easy, but everyone continues to work hard and support one another,” Supt. Verdugo said. “It is the first time this has been done, so we know that despite our best efforts, we will have areas of needed improvement.”
Impact on staff, enrollment, funding
Although the ASPAA survey focuses on the teacher shortage, due to the lack of education funding there is a shortage for other positions as well, Wing said.
This year, 633 other school staff members who are not teachers resigned or retired citing COVID-19 as the primary reason, and 342 school staff took a full-year, unpaid leave of absence citing COVID-19 as the primary reason, Wing said.
That along with the 138 teachers taking a full-year, unpaid leave of absence due to COVID-19 is causing extreme stress for school districts looking to hire people to help students, Wing said.
“We hope they return to teaching next year, but in the meantime, schools have to staff these teacher positions as well,” Wing said.
While some school districts or charter schools require teachers to pay liquidated damages for breaking a contract to help defray the expense of recruitment and replacement, others do not, Wing said.
“Unfortunately, the (teacher) candidate pool is very shallow,” Wing said.
That may also explain why half of remaining teacher vacancies were filled with teachers with alternative certifications. Over 25 percent remain unfilled with long-term subs as one solution for the time being, Wing said.
“Basically, for every 100 teacher openings next year, we can assume only 25 get filled by standard certified teachers based on the trend over the past five to six years,” Wing said.
Also, 75 percent of schools said they “have a decrease in student enrollment that will impact their budget. Where did the students go?” Wing said.
“Like many issues of inequities and underfunding, COVID-19 has impacted our educator workforce. As schools and the state drastically altered our approach to education and teaching during COVID-19, some educators made the difficult decision to leave the classroom,” Supt. Hoffman said.
“I know this decision is deeply personal to each educator – and I hope that one day we can recruit them back to our schools through the efforts of our Educator Recruitment and Retention Team at the Arizona Department of Education,” Supt Hoffman said.
What’s working to recruit and retain teachers
The Arizona Department of Education’s Educator Recruitment and Retention Team provides information about pathways to become a teacher through approved programs that include social-emotional and culturally-responsive training that meet the needs of students and local education agencies, Arizona Teachers Academy, scholarships, Educators Rising, Troops to Teachers and prioritizes people from under-represented backgrounds and experiences.
The team also offers differentiated, culturally responsive professional development and information about more learning opportunities with community partners for mid-career educators to grow in the profession, including information on requirements to earn endorsements and how to become National Board certified.
In addition, the team seeks to bring former teachers back into the classroom with ways to renew their teaching certificates and career opportunities through their Educator Job Board.
Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District No. 35 has used a variety of strategies to recruit and retain teachers, Supt. Verdugo said.
“This has included partnerships with the University of Arizona for student teachers, and interns,” Supt. Verdugo said. “We introduced retention incentives for longevity stipends after 10 years of service. We also recently passed a $22.5 million bond to enhance and add facilities such as a district/community pool.”
“However, the best recruiting tool we have is the climate and culture of our community and District,” Supt. Verdugo said. “The community is very supportive of teachers and education. This translates into students who understand the importance and value of education. We have had success due to this combination.”
“Because of our experienced teachers and supportive community, we were named national AP and Cambridge School District of the Year in 2018,” Supt. Verdugo said. “Most recently, we had two schools recognized in a Stanford (University) study as two of the top schools in the country for academic success with students in poverty.”
When a teacher joins Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District No. 35, they know they are joining a team with high expectations and support, Supt. Verdugo said.
“Teachers want to be part of something special, where they are valued,” Supt. Verdugo said.
Santa Cruz Valley Unified has “had very high retention rates over the last few years, which includes a 94 percent retention rate for school years 2019-20 to 2020-21,” Supt. Verdugo said.
“We currently have nine positions that are being filled by long-term substitutes, so we still face the challenge of recruiting teachers, but we are confident when they join our team they will stay,” Supt. Verdugo said.
“Despite the challenges of COVID-19 and the historical obstacles in Arizona, we remain committed to recruiting, hiring, and retaining educators as well as building a pipeline of future educators across our state,” Supt. Hoffman said. “In the face of this public health crisis, there is much more to do to maintain and build our educator workforce.”