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Many Stressed K-12 Education Workers Consider Changing Jobs

Millions of worn-out K-12 educators and workers are wondering if their compensation is enough to justify the risk they are taking to teach kids during the pandemic. Vaccines will help, but it may not be enough.

Female teacher sitting in front of door with protest sign.
Teacher protests Chicago Public Schools' reopening plan, Jan. 21, 2021. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
After a year of reshaping teaching and learning to contend with COVID-19, K-12 education workers are worried and worn out. A new report from the Center for State and Local Government Excellence (SLGE) at ICMA-RC finds that their stress levels and health concerns are greater than ever, and that nearly 40 percent have considered changing jobs.

This is an unwelcome indicator of instability in what is by far the largest segment of the public workforce. According to a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau, 8.3 million of the 14.2 million persons employed by local government work in education, primarily at the elementary and secondary levels. 
Extended disruption of normal school operations has distressed parents, students and political leaders. Full economic recovery is not possible without functioning schools, and the possibility of a rush to leave school jobs concerns government leaders. 

“State and local governments were already having challenges with recruitment and retention of teachers before the pandemic,” says Rivka Liss-Levinson, Ph.D., senior research manager for SLGE and author of the report. “Now there are a new set of problems in terms of how you’re going to keep K-12 workers when they have low morale and so many safety and financial concerns.”
Adapting to teaching and learning during the pandemic means longer hours for many education workers. (Graph: Center for State and Local Government Excellence at ICMA-RC)

Risks and Rewards Are Out of Synch

SLGE analyzed responses from 494 K-12 employees with demographic characteristics that were consistent with the national workforce profile in this sector. It compared the responses collected from education workers to those from other public-sector workers.

Personal safety was a major concern, with 60 percent of education workers believing they are at risk of COVID-19 exposure at work, compared to 38 percent of other government employees. Following from this, 6 in 10 expressed concerns about keeping their families from contracting the virus, compared to 4 in 10 from other sectors. More than half feel that their compensation is not in line with the risks they are taking.

As an earlier SLGE report found, stress and burnout levels are high among all public-sector workers as a result of the pandemic, but 40 percent of K-12 employees stated that their morale was “somewhat” or “strongly” negative. This represents about 3 million state education workers.

Changes required by the shift to alternative methods of teaching have also added pressure. Four in 10 workers reported they are working more than they did before the pandemic, from causes including the extra demand of online and remote learning (78 percent), more meetings and communication with parents (52 percent), more meetings with colleagues (50 percent) and problems with technology (38 percent).  

Almost three-fourths of K-12 employees are women, and one survey finding in particular underscores that they are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Sixty percent of respondents said that they have worked from home for “lengthy periods” while caring for children, as compared to 39 percent of non-education workers.

Jurisdictions need to think about what can be done to help these workers, says Liss-Levinson. “They don’t have the schedule flexibility that other state and local government employees do,” she says. “If you’re teaching a class, you can’t be helping your kids.”

A Lot of Discouraged Workers

Mark Joraanstad, Ed.D, executive director of Arizona School Administrators, oversees a network that includes 1,400 public school administrators in the state, from superintendents and district officials to principals, assistant principals and teachers who are aspiring administrators. The report from SLGE mirrors what he has seen.

“There are a lot of discouraged workers in education,” he says. “The teaching and the classified staff have borne enormous burdens this year, and there’s a feeling that what they’ve done has not really been valued.”

Teachers have made heroic efforts to provide instruction in-person as well as in various hybrid and virtual situations, often at risk of their own health, says Joraanstad. Even so, the public seems focused on what they have not been able to do.

The teaching profession was already bracing for a “silver tsunami,” and COVID-19 has only made retirement more appealing. “A lot of people have retired during the school year this year,” says Joraanstad. “They’ve said it isn’t worth the risk.”

The rollout of vaccinations will help, and he expects most of the teachers in Arizona to get two shots by the end of March. Still, there’s no question that the pandemic has exacerbated the severe teacher shortage that already existed in the state.
K-12 workers (blue bars) are much more likely to have child-care responsibilities while at work than other public-sector employees (yellow bars), a reflection of the fact that three-fourths of K-12 workers are women. (Graph: Center for State and Local Government Excellence at ICMA-RC)

Support for Reopening

“These survey results illuminate what we know to be true: this pandemic has wreaked havoc on our communities and our lives,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). “It has upended our sense of normalcy and made already stressful working conditions even more unbearable.”

Weingarten is convinced that the lack of a coherent national plan for schools made things worse.

“Imagine if we had implemented the guardrails recommended by the AFT in the early days of the pandemic — the road map of layered mitigation, testing and vaccines that so many of us now see as the path to safe return.”

The new administration has expressed commitments to both science and reopening schools, but there are still questions about how soon schools will be able to comply with guidelines from a newly empowered Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

No matter what comes next, the situation won’t improve for educators or students if school budgets become default targets for deep cuts. When schools return to in-person instruction, the costs associated with ongoing remote learning, social distancing and other public health mandates could increase their expenses. Assisting those who need to continue working from home during an extended return to in-person teaching, recognition of service, or even financial wellness programs could foster job loyalty.

“There needs to be a lot of consideration of the impact of making cuts in certain areas, thinking about the workforce,” says Liss-Levinson. “There should be a long pause before making these decisions, really thinking through the short, medium and long-term impacts.”

Federal support can provide a buffer. The relief package Congress passed in December includes $54.3 billion for public schools. The $1.9 trillion relief package that President Biden will sign this week will give them $126 billion more. Joraanstad is happy to see these developments, but hopes they won’t cause states to decide that they don’t also need to support the work of school administrators and staff.

Some good has come from this period, he says, in which educators pivoted, tried new teaching methods and found new ways to use technology. But schools won’t go back to operating as they did before the pandemic.

“That won’t happen,” adds Joraanstad. “We have improved how we teach and learn together with our students and families — schools will be better than they were before.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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