Nov. 24, 2020
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jamey Dunn-Thomason
IGPA report warns of potential teacher retention crisis related to pandemic stressors
URBANA — Illinois teachers are facing unprecedented challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, and investment in the state’s education workforce is needed to avert a teacher retention crisis, according to a new report from the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs.
The Policy Spotlight, titled An Unfolding Crisis in the Satisfaction and Supply of Teachers in Illinois, draws from ongoing research conducted by IGPA Education and Learning Working Group member Meghan A. Kessler, who is an assistant professor of teacher education at the University of Illinois Springfield.
Kessler interviewed teachers and administrators across the state about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their feedback indicates they are struggling, both at home and on the job, which has implications for teacher retention.
Teachers have been asked to adapt quickly to teaching in entirely new ways. Some have had to adjust to virtual learning on the spot. Others are still teaching in person, but coping with the additional precautions it brings and fears for their personal safety. Some are managing a heavier workload as they teach both virtually and in-person. Meanwhile, interpersonal connections and relationships with students, which are some of the most gratifying and meaningful elements of teachers’ jobs, have diminished under all three models.
“The work of teachers and schools was significantly altered by the pandemic,” Kessler said. “Many of those changes, and the uncertainty that comes with them, will persist for the foreseeable future. In addition to intense professional challenges, teachers are coping with the stress that all families face during this pandemic around access to child care, maintaining their health and finding time for their loved ones. As the state faces significant budget shortfalls, teachers also fear that the resources they need to do their jobs will be reduced.”
Educators Kessler interviewed told her that even though they are working more hours, they worry that they aren’t able to offer educational experiences as engaging and rigorous as full-time, in-person teaching. Teachers reported feeling “exhausted.” They are also acutely worried about the safety and well-being of their students, especially in cases where the students might be exposed to abuse or neglect while away from school for prolonged periods.
“If we haven’t already, I can say with all certainty that we will see an increase in trauma and anxiety among our students,” an educator from southern Illinois told Kessler. “We’ve done what we can to provide meals and other services to families who are at risk, but not being able to see our kids and our kids not being able to see us, that’s really tough. Especially for those kids who are most vulnerable.”
Even before the pandemic hit, Illinois and other states struggled to fill teacher vacancies, especially in some specific fields such as special education, and in high-poverty districts. Several recent surveys and reports indicate that teachers are more likely to consider leaving the profession due to pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Policy Spotlight makes immediate and long-term recommendations to mitigate this unfolding workforce crisis.
“As a profession grounded in care for students and communities, Illinois educators are ready and willing to take on the challenges presented by the pandemic, but they cannot do it alone,” Kessler said. “Our schools now require a significant infusion of financial and moral support from state leaders and community members.”
In the short term, the Policy Spotlight recommends allowing for flexibility in accountability mandates, such as student testing and teacher evaluations. Kessler also suggests prioritizing COVID-19 testing and contact tracing for students and school employees, and investing in training and resources focused on social and emotional needs.
Kessler said that staff and students will return to schools with greater social and emotional needs after the pandemic is over. “As we consider what school will look like post-pandemic, teachers and schools will need significant support to provide the social, emotional and academic supports students need,” she said.
In the long term, the spotlight recommends promoting solidarity with teachers and schools, investing in teacher education and retention programs, hiring more teachers, and expanding the ranks of school social workers, psychologists, nurses and interventionists. Kessler said that educators should play a key role in policy decisions going forward.
The Policy Spotlight emphasizes that addressing the needs of educators during the pandemic and beyond is not only crucial to schools but also to their communities. “If teachers are not provided the preparation, continuing education, resourcing, and structural supports necessary to respond to the damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, we risk not only a teacher shortage, but a future of worsening access to opportunity, safety, and equity for generations of Illinois citizens,” Kessler wrote.
IGPA’s Policy Spotlights grew out of the work of IGPA’s Task Force on the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic. At the request of U of I System President Tim Killeen, IGPA assembled more than four dozen interdisciplinary faculty experts from the three system universities to serve on the task force. All of the task force’s work, including additional Policy Spotlights, can be found on the group's webpage.