by Jayne O’Donnell
Zena Whitworth has taught school in Prince George’s County, Maryland and Washington, D.C. for nearly 30 years. She rolled with increasingly large classrooms, low pay and a lack of resources that forced her to pay out of pocket or have students do without. But after the impact two years of Covid-19 restrictions had on her now-scared, angry and emotionally-scarred students, she’s calling it quits – five years before qualifying for a full pension.
“Teachers are depressed because they can’t help the situation,” said Whitworth. “The only thing I can do is teach and they don’t want to learn because they’re more concerned about the person sitting next to them so close they’re touching. They’re afraid they’re going to catch Covid and die.”
Frustrations like Whitworth’s notwithstanding, fears of a mass exodus from teaching so far seem overblown. Teacher departures actually declined right after Covid-19 hit in the spring of 2020. And they are pretty much back to the level they were at before the pandemic, data on five states and 19 large U.S. school districts analyzed by the Associated Press and the education news site Chalkbeat show.
This may be explained in part because schools are adopting creative workarounds.
“Schools have resorted to using more teachers as well as non-teaching staff outside of their intended duties, increasing class sizes, sharing teachers and staff with other schools, and curtailing student transportation due to staff shortages,” NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr said in a February 2022 report.
Still, she acknowledged, “schools continue to face meaningful challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Burnout and pandemic-related stress were top reasons 55% of teacher-members of the National Education Association told the group in January 2022 that they were
thinking of leaving their profession earlier than planned. That was up from 37% of respondents queried in August 2021, according to the survey of 3,621 teachers and other school staff members released January 31.
When asked what to do about the problems, survey respondents suggested higher salaries, more student mental health support, stepped up hiring of teachers and support staff, and less paperwork.
Whitworth agrees some of that would help the system run better and lighten some of the load for teachers, but she still believes it’s a no-win situation for her and many others. Teachers have to work with many students they don’t know due to staff shortages while – as she was – struggling with their own mental health problems. She said she had students struggling to readjust to in-school learning after either being afraid – or not allowed – to leave their bedrooms because of the Covid-19 risks.
After isolating for two years, “they don’t want to be in a room with a lot of people,” she said. Meanwhile, the number of in-school fights increased, said Whitworth, who felt like she wasn’t able to teach because she needed to focus on keeping students – and herself – safe.
“They’re just mad and don’t know any way to express themselves,” said Whitworth. “How much can a teacher take?”
O’Donnell, who was USA TODAY’s health policy reporter until April 2013, is founder and CEO of Youthcast Media Group (YMG). Richard Willing, her husband and a former legal af airs and intelligence reporter for USA TODAY, contributed to this report. He is a YMG volunteer editor and instructor.