Will teacher concerns over COVID cause more of them to flee classroom?

Katie Jonker, a former teacher’s assistant in Decatur who is also the parent of two Decatur High School students, protests the City Schools of Decatur plan to reopen in-person learning by gathering in front of the school’s headquarters in downtown Decatur on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Katie Jonker, a former teacher’s assistant in Decatur who is also the parent of two Decatur High School students, protests the City Schools of Decatur plan to reopen in-person learning by gathering in front of the school’s headquarters in downtown Decatur on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In the past few days, readers have sent me emails calling teachers “lazy” for not wanting to juggle both online and in-person classes. They’re calling teachers “crybabies” for resigning rather than risk bringing COVID-19 home to their families and even “un-American” for insisting their students wear masks.

At this rate, we’ll be calling for substitutes as teachers abandon the profession.

When COVID-19 shut down classrooms in March and frazzled parents were suddenly teaching fractals, factoring and fractions, teachers saw their stature and their stock rise. Now that politicians and parents want students back in their classrooms to restore both the economy and their sanity, teachers are seeing public affection wane.

At some school board meetings, Georgia teachers who point out that virus infection rates, while declining across metro Atlanta, are still higher than considered safe for in-person classes earn a smattering of support. Parents who stand up to declare the pandemic overblown, masks a violation of individual freedoms and in-person classes their right as taxpayers draw wild applause.

There is not a long line of aspiring teachers if we drive out the current ones by demanding they ignore their own misgivings and return to school buildings, few of which follow the extensive social distancing and sanitizing protocols recommended to prevent spread. I understand the frustration of parents and concerns over diminished learning, but I am not sure running roughshod over legitimate teacher fears is a solution.

In 2012-13, 5,443 candidates completed teacher preparation programs in Georgia. In 2017-18, the most recent available data, that number declined to 3,807, according to the Southern Regional Education Board, a research and consulting organization for Georgia and 15 other states.

In a report released today, SREB found, despite Georgia and most of its member states approving teacher raises over the past four years, teacher pay nationally has slipped over the long term. SREB says the average U.S. teacher salary ($58,540) in the 2018-19 school year was lower than the national average ($59,944) nearly two decades earlier, when adjusted for inflation.

Georgia provided a 2% cost-of-living pay increase in 2017-18 and $3,000 raises in 2019-20 for educators. The state’s average teacher salary in 2018-19 was $57,137, higher than most of the region, except Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C. Georgia’s average starting salary for teachers was $35,656, lower than in Alabama, Florida and Tennessee, said SREB policy analyst Megan Boren, who studies teacher issues.

The SREB report found midcareer teachers with bachelor’s degrees, 10 years of experience, and supporting a family of four now qualify for two or more government assistance benefits in 38 states, including Georgia. (SREB is launching a Teacher Compensation Dashboard in November to provide Southern states and school systems with up-to-date access to salary and benefits information.)

“Georgia’s teacher-compensation package — salary, health care and retirement — is good for the region. However, teacher salaries in Georgia and most of the nation are not competitive with salaries for other college-educated professionals. To attract more young people into teaching, the state must keep moving forward — even with the budget challenges brought about by the pandemic,” said Boren.

A new report by the Economic Policy Institute found public school teachers in Georgia earn about 25% less in weekly wages than nonteacher college graduates with similar characteristics, higher than the national teacher penalty gap of 20%.

The same salary gap was noted earlier this month during a webinar on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s new report on schooling trends worldwide. Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, flashed a slide of how teacher salaries in 27 countries compare to those of other college-educated workers. “The United States gets last position on the chart,” said Schleicher. “When you look at what is paid to teachers and what is paid to somebody else with university qualifications, there is no question teachers fare worse.”

In an interview, Economic Policy Institute study co-author and University of California, Berkeley, labor economist Sylvia Allegretto said the American wage gap reflects the predominance of women in education. Originally, teachers were males but schools realized that women could be hired at lower wages since they were not the family breadwinners. “Even though we are in 2020, and the contribution of women to family income is absolutely critical, it is hard to change,” said Allegretto.

But Allegretto suggested change may be essential. “Yes, there are people for whom teaching is a calling, but how many people are going to go into a career that might bring them a lot of satisfaction but where they’ll never be able to pay off their college loans or own a house? Even before COVID, we were already seeing a teacher shortage. What happens to the pipeline now?”

National surveys and anecdotal evidence show more teachers are retiring, citing safety concerns and frustrations with virtual teaching and school reopening, said Boren. Teacher turnover is typically about 8% every year nationally, including retirements, but Boren said, "Surveys show it could grow as high as 40% from COVID-19. States don’t report these data early in the school year, so we don’t yet know the real impact in each state.”

As one of the foremost experts on teacher retention, Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania says it’s too early to know if COVID-19 will exacerbate teacher shortages. While there’s been a lot of talk about COVID pushing more teachers to resign or retire, he said, “However, everything I have seen on this is anecdotal, or conjecture, or for specific school districts, such as Houston. I know of no national data on this. Typically, such large data surveys take a year or two to get released."

Ingersoll said his own view is a bit contrarian. “I am skeptical that teacher attrition has (increased) or will increase. Traditionally, employees in general across industries and occupations quit at higher rates in good economic times and at lower rates in bad economic times," he said. "The reason is simple — even if someone dislikes their job, they are loath to quit if there is financial uncertainty, or if there are not other jobs available.”