Nearly 2,000 teachers have left New York City’s public schools during the pandemic, according to a new report from the state comptroller.
The report's release follows nearly two years of pandemic wherein teachers and school staff have reported extensive burnout due to disruptions and challenges in classroom instruction. It said the city’s education department lost 1,992 teachers between June 2020 and November 2021 – a 2.5% decrease – with 77,160 teachers on the education department’s payroll last fall. The number of paraprofessionals and teaching assistants plummeted even more significantly — by 15%, a loss of 3,851 employees.
In interviews, many educators said that may be the tip of the iceberg: They expect to see more colleagues exit the field soon. Some said they are seriously contemplating leaving themselves.
“I really love teaching, but I have definitely considered leaving the city,” said Jessica Cohen, a science teacher at Francis Lewis High School in Queens.
The New York City data appears to reflect a nationwide trend: a recent poll of teachers found more than half now expect to leave the profession earlier than planned and the Bureau of Labor of Statistics reported more than 500,000 have already left.
The decline in teachers comes as public school enrollment is also shrinking. But even with enrollment down, administrators have been scrambling to cover classes, either to accommodate social distancing, cover instructors who left because of the vaccine mandate, or fill in when teachers get sick, as many did during the omicron surge.
Sarah Casasnovas, a spokesperson for the city’s education department, said there was a “temporary decline in the number of teachers” after the city’s vaccine mandate went into effect last fall, but approximately 5,600 new teachers were hired for the 2021-2 academic year. There are 27,000 substitute teachers “on hand,” she added.
“We’re grateful to our incredible educators who go above and beyond for New York City students each day, and we’re proud that our teacher retention rate remains high,” Casasnovas said.
According to the city’s teacher’s union, the United Federation of Teachers, the school system had to replace more than 5,000 teachers every year even before COVID-19.
“Keeping a stable pedagogical workforce in the schools has been a constant challenge for the city’s Department of Education,” union spokesperson Alison Gendar said. “The long-term effects of the pandemic are going to make this problem even more difficult to solve.”
Teachers throughout the city have reported tremendous burnout – after an unprecedented pivot to remote learning in March 2020, followed by a combination of virtual and hybrid learning last year, and the challenges of returning to schools this fall.
The Crucible Known As Remote Teaching Begins, And Teachers Are Largely Left To Their Own Devices (September 2020)
13 Months Into Pandemic Schooling, NYC Teachers Yearn For Stability (April 2021)
"I'm Just Not Trained For This": Dept. Of Education Office Workers Sent To Understaffed NYC Schools (October 2021)
"It's Not Sustainable": NYC Public School Administrators, Teachers Struggle With Staffing Shortages (January 2022)
Health and safety concerns persist: According to the New York Times, roughly a quarter of school staffers were infected during the omicron wave. Teachers also report difficulty managing students who are struggling academically and emotionally. On a good day, educators said they strain to communicate through masks over the din of fans and air purifiers, as the deep chill of winter seeps in through open windows.
“I cannot see myself doing this for another 30 years,” Roberta Cordeau, a kindergarten teacher at Sunset Park Avenues Elementary School, said.
Cordeau said she loves her school and its administration, but she’s extremely frustrated with the education department’s leadership.
Although she said she always worked hours of uncompensated overtime, that has increased during the pandemic. This year, the education department rolled out a mental health screener and assessments for learning loss that are to be given to students three times a year.
“Every year more is asked of us and yet we’re not adequately compensated for it,” she said.
Cordeau said the policy change that would make the biggest difference for teachers and students would be to shrink class sizes. “They will spend millions of dollars on stuff that makes our jobs more difficult when we can tell you what would make our jobs better and help students,” she said.
Last month, Governor Kathy Hochul acknowledged the need to increase the pipeline for teachers, and pledged to prioritize retention and recruitment. She underscored the state’s commitment to dramatically increase funding for education, and accelerate the teacher certification process. Her proposal includes: allowing teachers to teach while certification is underway, support for workers changing careers to teach and paraprofessionals seeking to “upskill,” and a teacher residency program with reduced tuition for teachers in graduate programs.
Queens teacher Cohen said she “was on the verge of a nervous breakdown” last fall, but she plans to stick it out.
“I don’t think I’m at the point of leaving the profession – although a few months ago I was ready to call it quits,” she said.
Paradoxically, the difficulties of the pandemic are actually what’s motivating her to stay – because of her students, she said.
“Kids who look like they were carrying the weight of the world leave smiling,” Cohen said.