In Chicago, the pandemic has not spurred an exodus of educators

Maria Gándara, a bilingual middle school special education teacher at Edwards Elementary on Chicago’s Southwest Side, has worked to engage her students during a year of teaching remotely.
Maria Gándara, a bilingual middle school special education teacher at Edwards Elementary on Chicago’s Southwest Side, has worked to engage her students during a year of teaching remotely. (Courtesy of Maria Gándara)

For Maria Gándara, a Chicago special education teacher, the past year was more trying than any other time in her career. 

She struggled to engage virtually with her middle schoolers at Edwards Elementary, in a Southwest Side zip code hard hit by the pandemic. Then, as the district announced late last fall it was gearing up to reopen school buildings, Gándara, who has asthma, anxiously researched personal protective equipment.

“I was really concerned,” Gándara said. “I was trying to gear up and get ready.” 

Despite the pressures the pandemic has placed on educators like Gándara, Chicago’s teachers and staff have largely stayed put. Bucking dire national predictions about a mass exodus of school employees, the number of retirements and resignations in Chicago’s public schools has not ticked up from the 2018-2019 school year. That means the district is poised to hold the line on a pre-pandemic trend: Amid an improved financial outlook, its workforce has grown, and annual departures have sharply decreased. 

Nationally, too, data suggest that overall, school employees are not yet leaving in larger numbers, a reassuring finding because educator turnover is extremely disruptive to school communities and costly to districts. Many employees were likely reluctant to quit or retire amid the economic downturn, and stayed put as some districts delayed reopening — or felt the job remained rewarding despite the challenges. 

“I don’t think that people aren’t frustrated,” said Marguerite Roza at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab. “I don’t think they are not scared to come back. It’s just that all told, the job is still worth having, even with the pressures of the pandemic.”

Researchers at the Lab say there’s little evidence of a national educator shortage: Widespread hiring freezes last year might actually lead to a deeper-than-usual talent pool. That would be good news for superintendents of districts outside of Chicago, who have issued urgent warnings about shortages in critical areas such as special education and bilingual education. The state did see an uptick in teacher retirements last year, and the state’s largest teachers union has rung alarms about looming shortages.

A trying year

Zachary Trail, a prekindergarten teacher in Daley Elementary Academy on Chicago’s Southwest Side, felt deep apprehension in the run-up to the district’s January pre-K reopening. His partner is at a higher risk for developing serious complications from COVID-19, and he worried about bringing the infection home at a time when community coronavirus rates were high. 

He also worried about what his classroom — built on close contact with students and hands-on learning activities — would look like under the rules of social distancing. Instead of comforting upset students, would he have to urge them to calm down from six feet away?  

He applied for permission to work from home but was denied. He felt ill the week he was required to report to work in person, but by later in the week, the district stopped approving his sick days. The following Monday he was locked out of his virtual classroom and his pay was docked. Within two weeks, he found a promising job lead on the admissions team at the Erikson Institute, a child development graduate school he had attended, and decided to resign. 

“Teaching is a passion of mine,” he said. “But it felt too hurtful and too uncertain to wait around to get fired.”

Zachary Trail resigned from his position as a pre-kindergarten teacher at Daley Elementary Academy on Chicago’s Southwest Side in January. He did not feel safe reporting back to work in person when the district started bringing some students back to the classroom. (Courtesy of Zachary Trail)

Between the start of the fiscal year in July and February, about 880 employees retired and roughly 330 resigned from Chicago Public Schools, which employs more than 38,600 educators and staff. The departures included more than 680 teachers. That’s roughly in line with the same period the previous year. 

The district saw a mid-school year uptick in January, as it started reopening school buildings for students and educators amid an acrimonious standoff with its teachers union. Almost 160 employees left, but officials said the January uptick was typical. Prior to a reopening agreement with its teachers union that allowed employees recalled to school buildings to go on unpaid leave until they get vaccinated, the district was also not seeing an increase in extended leaves. More recently, 645 employees, including 425 teachers, have taken unpaid leave under that agreement provision.

The numbers look small compared to those from several years ago. Both resignations and retirements in Chicago have plummeted in recent years, as the district’s total workforce increased by almost 10% in the three years leading up to the pandemic. Overall, departures fell by 35%. Retirements alone were down by almost half. 

The district attributes that increased stability to a rosier financial outlook and redoubled efforts to recruit and retain talent.

“We are on stronger financial footing, we’ve had consistent leadership in CEO (Janice) Jackson and we have not had to take furloughs or other severely disruptive austerity measures,” the district said in a statement. 

Roza said the Chicago departure numbers are strikingly small even amid the pandemic’s upheaval. And, she said, Chicago does not appear to be an outlier. 

Roza affirms the frustration and anxiety school employees feel. A national poll by USA Today last summer found 1 in 5 teachers said they would likely not return to the classroom if their school buildings reopened that fall. But Roza said the data so far suggest most educators are not acting on this frustration. Chad Aldeman, Roza’s colleague at the Edunomics Lab, for instance, analyzed school employee retirement data from seven states across the country. Overall across this sample, 2020 retirements were down by about 5% from the previous year. Only one of the states, Alabama, saw an uptick.

“The narrative out there has been massive departures, people quitting, not gonna have it,” said Roza. “The data is telling an opposite story. We are not seeing an exodus of teachers.” 

Illinois did see a 10% increase in educator retirements during January through October of last year — the most recent data available — over the same period in 2019, according to the state Teachers’ Retirement System. Dave Urbanek, a spokesman for the system, said anecdotally system staff heard that COVID-19 factored into the decision of many of these employees. 

Some were fearful of contracting the virus on the job or critical of their districts’ reopening plans. One telling trend: Whereas the numbers held steady during the high retirement season from April through June, the system saw a marked increase instead in July and August, when many districts were announcing their reopening plans. 

Like Chicago, Illinois has seen a steady decrease in teacher retirements over time since the mid-2010s. Despite last year’s uptick, the 2020 numbers remain below those for the same period in 2016, likely in part because an early retirement option expired that year, and a financial penalty kicked in for any educator who retires before age 60 and has fewer than 35 years of experience. 

Staying put

Gándara, the special education teacher at Edwards Elementary said throughout the past year, she remained hopeful she and her students would ride out the tough stretch. The greatest test came in December, when the coronavirus sickened her family. She was hospitalized twice and missed all but a few days of work in January, a fresh setback in her push to engage students.

But the district granted her an accommodation to work from home as roughly half of her students returned to the classroom. When she returned to work, Gándara redoubled her efforts to connect with her students. Over the past month, she finally saw participation and engagement pick up and academic growth set in. She feels vindicated in her determination to persevere: “There’s not a paycheck elsewhere that would be enough to replace this.”

Without a doubt, the year has deeply challenged educators. But Roza says the profound economic uncertainty of the moment has likely made them and workers in other fields reluctant to leave their jobs. Teachers who are nearing retirement might have the highest health and safety concerns about working in person, but those educators might also be loath to jeopardize their pension benefits. 

Chicago Public Schools officials say it’s important to wait until the end of the fiscal year to assess the full picture because retirements and resignations are cyclical. But at this point, the district does not seem to be poised for an uptick.    

During a recent webinar on pandemic education turnover, Roza said many districts froze or restricted hiring last year as they have done in prior recessions. With a “pent-up supply” of educators on the job market, districts now have a deeper talent pool as some are eyeing ramped-up hiring to address the academic disruption from the pandemic. Districts have billions in federal stimulus funds heading their way, but it’s one-time funding, with some strings attached, that could make it difficult to  invest in expanding staff positions.

Juanita Nave, a math teacher at South Shore International High School, had resolved to retire this year — even though leaving in her mid-50s would incur a penalty of 6% on her retirement benefits for each year short of age 60. On the cusp of the pandemic, the veteran teacher was frustrated by growing class sizes and paperwork, and drained by managing classroom behavior issues. Then came the abrupt transition to remote learning last spring, which thrust Nave out of her comfort zone. 

But her school paired her with a younger, technology-savvy teacher, and they met weekly to troubleshoot virtual learning hurdles. Nave found herself energized by the new skills she was learning; technology also offered faster, more efficient ways to handle paperwork.

 She decided against retiring. She is anxious about a possible return to the classroom this spring as the district aims to reopen high schools, but she is not daunted by it. 

“When we get back into the building, maybe it will be crazy for a minute,” she said. “But maybe children will appreciate education a little bit more.”  

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