Largest teachers union says educators leaving profession in droves due to safety concerns, burnout
Mariah Klein first considered leaving the teaching profession at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the spring.
Eight months later, Klein says she has had enough navigating in-person classes at Charles G. Reskin Elementary School in Glendale Heights within Marquardt District 15, which serves 2,600 students in Glendale Heights, Addison, Lombard, Bloomingdale and Glen Ellyn.
"Teaching during a pandemic is hard. It's stressful, it's unpredictable and it's overwhelming," said Klein, of Glendale Heights, who has been teaching for four years. "Morale, at least in my building and I'm sure in many other buildings, is incredibly low. It's really hard to watch my colleagues struggle day to day."
Klein spoke Wednesday during an Illinois Education Association news conference. The state's largest union representing 135,000 school employees says a recent poll of more than 1,300 members shows one-third of educators are considering leaving the profession over safety concerns and stress related to in-person instruction and remote learning amid an existing teacher shortage.
Marquardt District 15 Superintendent Jerry O'Shea said the district is working hard to support teachers "during this unprecedented time."
"The past eight months have been beyond challenging for the students, families, teachers, administrators, staff, and school board in our community and in school systems across the state and nation," O'Shea said. "We are working hard to provide every student a high-quality public education and opportunity to succeed during the pandemic and want to acknowledge the incredible work, talent, and commitment of our teachers."
IEA President Kathi Griffin said roughly 35% of education employees statewide have considered leaving the profession or are reevaluating their career path.
"This should sound the alarm for every person in Illinois who values our children and their education," Griffin said. "Teacher retirements are at their highest rates in five years, and others are considering switching careers. We need to figure out how to keep our talented professionals in education. And we think the best way to do that is by asking local health departments to intervene when school boards and/or administrations are making decisions that are not keeping their students and staff safe."
The Daily Herald surveyed several suburban school districts that didn't report large numbers of teachers leaving due to the pandemic environment. A few districts did see some educators take early retirement this year because of it.
"We did have a couple of teachers retire or resign in July, and it's likely that concerns around the virus may have caused this to happen," said Steve Pearce, chief human resources officer for Batavia Unit District 101. "We have certainly seen fewer substitute teachers and we have had some difficulty in filling some paraprofessional positions. Both of these are atypical for us in Batavia and is undoubtedly related to the coronavirus."
Other suburban districts are seeing a shortage of substitute teachers willing to take on work due to the pandemic, which is even more critical when existing employees are affected by the virus.
"We have seen less availability in our current staff because of quarantines and symptoms related to COVID-19," said Tom Petersen, spokesman for Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211.
Petersen said so far only one district teacher has chosen to retire a year earlier than originally planned because of the pandemic. "We have had just one newly hired teacher choose to leave the profession within the first couple weeks of employment because he was experiencing difficulty in adjusting to his role as a teacher," he added.
Nearly 52% of teachers IEA surveyed said their workloads are considerably heavier now and 40% said they don't have any extra planning time to prepare for remote learning, teaching in person or doing both simultaneously. Teachers also complained of having to work 12 to 14 hours a day, survey results show.
Griffin said teachers now also must worry about ensuring in-person students keep their masks on and wash hands, monitoring for symptoms, assessing for anxiety and often teaching from home while supervising their own children's learning. About two thirds of educators are experiencing burnout due to the increased workload and about 27% of educators statewide have considered leaving the profession, she added.
With rising COVID-19 positivity rates in communities, the IEA is threatening health and safety strikes if school districts aren't following health guidelines.
"We have some administrators or school boards, most who are not medical professionals or experts in infectious diseases, making decisions for in-person learning," Griffin said. "It's pushing our members to the brink. We are not against in-person learning. We are against unsafe learning. Based on the metrics alone, in 75 of Illinois' 102 counties and the city of Chicago, it is not safe for many to be gathering in schools right now."