School buses are parked outside of the Salt Lake City School District’s Pupil Transportation building in Salt Lake City on Feb. 11, 2021. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)
SALT LAKE CITY — Many teachers get exhausted even thinking about the 2020-21 school year, including Heidi Miller.
“With the mask wearing, social distancing, hand sanitizing … It was a very different year than I’ve ever had when I’ve taught school before,” Miller said.
That sentiment was apparently widespread, with multiple polls and headlines predicting a mass teacher exodus.
Then, in January 2021, the Rand Corp. surveyed teachers and found 1 in 4 were considering leaving their jobs at the end of the 2020-21 school year.
“We were worried,” said Ben Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District.
District administrators heard the grim predictions and worried about filling their classes this fall. The district had already been losing teachers before the pandemic, in large part, due to the large contingent of baby boomers approaching retirement age.
But now that the deadline has passed to finalize their teacher contracts, administrators are pleasantly surprised to see the exodus never materialized.
“Our numbers this year are better this year,” Horsley said. “We’ve seen a significant decline in retirements and resignations this year.”
Granite’s experience was mirrored in many states across the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported “quit rates” for education in May 2021 were almost half of what they were the year before, during the heart of the pandemic.
In Utah, KSL requested three years of data from most of the state’s major school districts.
In Granite, there was a slight increase in teacher turnover right after the pandemic, but numbers dropped this year.
Alpine, Jordan, Nebo, Washington and Davis districts experienced the same. Salt Lake saw a slight dip during the pandemic, but returned to normal. Weber saw a steady decline in teachers leaving.
The State School Board surveyed districts this spring and found 1,000 teachers retired during the height of the pandemic and 2,400 resigned. They concluded those numbers are “on par with previous years.”
Despite these encouraging numbers, the UEA, Utah’s teachers union, said it is too soon to rest easy.
“I think it’s really premature to think that we’re out of the woods,” said UEA President Heidi Mathews.
Mathews thinks with the transmissible delta variant likely leading to another tough year, teachers could reach their breaking point.
“It was just not sustainable, and we thought we were through that,” she said.
She also said their data shows veteran teachers were being replaced with those less experienced.
I feel a little freedom here compared to other states, and I think that’s why we haven’t had such a bad drop in teachers.
–Sheila Hamlin, teacher
To gain insights into what kept teachers coming back, KSL asked some St. George teachers who were preparing their rooms and eager to meet their students.
“I feel a little freedom here compared to other states, and I think that’s why we haven’t had such a bad drop in teachers,” said first grade teacher Sheila Hamlin.
Teachers said they also persist because they know it matters in the lives of students.
“It’s needed more now than ever has been needed in educational history for good teachers to be here,” said fourth grade teacher Heidi Miller.
Horsley said the best way they can ensure a successful school year is to provide a contract teacher. That single factor can outweigh many of the impacts of COVID-19.
So the fact that most Utah districts have enough teachers to meet their needs is a good sign for children.
“Absolutely, I think that’s a really important point,” said Horsley.