Jan Robertson has taught “pretty much everything” over the past 40 years: outdoor education, science, and teacher coaching.

But the coronavirus pandemic has meant Robertson, like colleagues across the country, has had to weigh whether to prioritize her health or the job of her dreams. After being told she would probably be teaching in a classroom in the fall, she made the “heart-wrenching” decision to leave her job as a science instructional coach at a Northern California school district. 

At 64, she “did not want to return to a classroom where I am old enough that I’m in that list of (high-risk factors),” she said.

Robertson isn’t alone in feeling boxed into a decision – one-third of teachers told Education Week in July they were somewhat or very likely to leave their job this year, compared with just 8% who leave the profession in a typical year. 

But while that survey might reflect teachers’ feelings over the summer, a review of the retirement and staffing figures collected in some of the first states to resume classes this year suggests that fears of a mass exodus of retiring teachers may have been overblown.  

In Tennessee, for example, 1,307 teachers had filed retirement applications through September, state records show. That figure is down 31% from the same period last year.

And in Indiana, another early-opening state, the 1,572 teachers who retired through September represent a 5% decrease from the number who retired last year, according to the Indiana Public Retirement System.

Between COVID-19 and layoffs,schools may not have enough teachers to get through the year

By contrast, New York state has experienced an increase in retirements, especially in the weeks leading up to the new school year.

All told, the state Teacher Retirement System reported 5,728 retirements between April and early August, a 4% increase over the same period last year. But interest grew toward the end of summer, with 640 teachers filing retirement paperwork in July and early August, a 20% increase over the same time in 2019.

Yonkers, N.Y., elementary school teacher Irene Bordes, 66, of Cortlandt Manor made the decision to retire early because of her concerns with COVID-19 and to help her son and daughter-in-law with child care for her three grandchildren. Bordes plays a memory card game with her granddaughters Sammie, 5, and Charlotte, 8, at her family's home in Yorktown Heights Aug. 26, 2020.
Yonkers, N.Y., elementary school teacher Irene Bordes, 66, of Cortlandt Manor made the decision to retire early because of her concerns with COVID-19 and to help her son and daughter-in-law with child care for her three grandchildren. Bordes plays a memory card game with her granddaughters Sammie, 5, and Charlotte, 8, at her family’s home in Yorktown Heights Aug. 26, 2020.

Irene Bordes was one of them. After teaching for 24 years at an elementary school in a New York suburb, she decided in August to retire. Her two sons had urged their 66-year-old mother to not risk getting sick.

”They were very concerned about my health going back,” Bordes told The Journal News last month. “So many things are up in the air and the plans are changing day to day. It came down to a family decision.”

America’s missing kids: Amid COVID-19 and online school, thousands of students haven’t shown up

Educators’ worries about being exposed to the virus in the classroom aren’t theoretical. Thousands of students and teachers across the country have already been forced to quarantine because of outbreaks in schools.

But for some teachers, COVID-19 proved a rallying cry that ensured their return to the classroom. Luz Hernandez, 49, said she felt it was critical for her to return to her Milwaukee elementary school, where most of her students are Latino and on the wrong side of the digital learning divide.

She taught from her dining room table last semester after schools were shut down, but she returned to her classroom where she has more resources to start this year even though Milwaukee schools reopened with virtual instruction.

“Teachers were given the option to either teach from home or come to our classrooms and teach,” she explained. But she spends most of her nights at the same kitchen table “taking calls at home at night and just connecting with parents.”

While COVID-19 concerns pushed some teachers to consider retirement, fourth grade teacher Lindsey Earle came up with a novel approach: building an outdoor classroom at Prairie Hill Waldorf School in Pewaukee, Wis.
While COVID-19 concerns pushed some teachers to consider retirement, fourth grade teacher Lindsey Earle came up with a novel approach: building an outdoor classroom at Prairie Hill Waldorf School in Pewaukee, Wis.

Their superintendent recently informed her district that due to Milwaukee’s rising coronavirus infection rate, virtual teaching will take place indefinitely. Hernandez can’t retire until she’s 55, so “retirement is not an option for me at this point,” but she said that there was no doubt in her mind to return to school this year.

“It never dawned on me not to come and do what I signed up to do 25 years ago,” she added.

Dedicated teachers are in great demand. The August report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows 7.6 million employed in “local government education,” a category that includes most public school employees. That’s the fewest number of school employees nationwide in nearly 20 years, an effect that’s being felt in schools across the country.

In Arizona, a new survey of 145 school districts found that about 28% of teacher positions in the state remained vacant weeks into the school year, compared with 21% last year.

And in Southwest Florida’s Lee County, schools haven’t felt the bite of early retirements so much as just the typical annual turnover. The school district of 6,100 teachers needed 438 new hires before the Aug. 31 start of the school year, Superintendent Greg Adkins said.

“We have been actively hiring, but unfortunately, we are also losing teachers still,” he said. “I think people come to the realization, ‘Do I really want to do this anymore?’”

Too many factorsinvolved to say teachers are safer in class than at Walmart

Whitney Reddick, a special education teacher in Jacksonville, Fla., holds a sign that says "I'm a teacher, not a martyr" after participating in a march protesting the opening of schools during the pandemic that ended at a cemetery.
Whitney Reddick, a special education teacher in Jacksonville, Fla., holds a sign that says “I’m a teacher, not a martyr” after participating in a march protesting the opening of schools during the pandemic that ended at a cemetery.

COVID-19 doesn’t make those conversations any easier.

For 39 years, Anne Ham taught language arts and drama in Kansas, Illinois and Oklahoma, where after COVID-19 hit, she taught the last nine weeks of classes in the spring semester virtually in Norman Public Schools.

Ham, 61, had planned to retire in another year, but she has asthma. On top of that, her husband is 73 – a “very high risk” category in itself.

Because of these factors, she made the decision to leave early rather than put her health in jeopardy, even though she didn’t feel like she had a choice.

“Teaching was a huge part of my identity,” Ham said, adding that she misses her friends – most of whom are teachers – and feels guilty for not returning to her students. “I have to find my purpose again.”

Jessica Sevilla, a former seventh grade math teacher in Martin County on Florida’s east coast, echoed those concerns.  She was used to missing lunch because a student needed to talk; staying late to talk to parents; and coming to work early to give a student additional time to study. 

But she has underlying health issues and going back to school wasn’t a risk she was willing to take, she told the TCPalm, part of the USA TODAY Network, last month.

“To make a decision where I didn’t put my students first but put myself first is a weird feeling,” she said. “It feels wrong.”

Contributing: Lily Altavena, Arizona Republic; Joseph Spector, The Journal News, Sommer Brugal, Treasure Coast Newspapers, Pamela McCabe, The News-Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fear of mass teacher retirements from COVID-19 may have been overblown