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Data shows strong teacher retention in Utah despite pandemic

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teachers and staff of the Canyons School District received their second shots of the Moderna vaccine at Mount Jordan Middle School in Sandy on Thursday, March 11, 2021.

Despite concerns that the pandemic would drive many teachers away and exacerbate a longstanding teacher shortage in the state, more Utah teachers stayed in their jobs this year than they have over the last five years, according to data from the Utah State Board of Education.

Malia Hite, educator licensing coordinator with USBE, told KUER-FM the retention rate between the 2019-20 and current school years was 93%, compared to 90-91% in previous years.

“That is significant,” Hite said. “The theory that everybody is leaving is actually not supported with data at all.”

Teachers have left the profession during the pandemic. A February USBE survey of public school districts found more than 1,000 teachers retired during the 2019-2020 school year and nearly 2,400 resigned, though those numbers are on par with previous years and it’s not known how many of those are directly related to the pandemic.

Still, many teachers have at least considered leaving over the last year as adjusting to online learning, increased workloads teaching online and in person and concerns about contracting COVID-19 in the classroom have added more stress than ever. Some districts have also been affected more than others, so the overall data does not account for wide variations between schools.

As the economy picks back up, some experts predict more resignations could still come. Hite said teaching is often tied to how the economy is doing, which could be one explanation for the higher retention rate this year. When times are tough, she said, more people look to start or stay in teaching as it’s a stable job with great benefits.

On the other hand, when the economy is doing well, people often opt for other opportunities that pay more.

However, Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, isn’t convinced Utah teachers are staying in their roles as much as the data suggests.

She said she personally knows several teachers who are leaving the district where she used to teach, and others who have shifted to part-time teaching to manage other things in their lives. She also worries more resignations will come if teachers aren’t given more support.

Low pay is a factor in people leaving, Matthews said, but it’s not the main driver. Workload and stress — which lead to lower job satisfaction — contribute more.

“Teaching is really fun, especially when you care about your topic, you have the opportunities to connect with kids,” she said. “But what I hear from so many of our educators is that that joy and energy that has been so much a part of who they are has not been there in the pandemic.”

With federal relief funding coming in and the pandemic hopefully fading away, she hopes schools can use the summer as an opportunity to bring some of the joy back to teaching. She said teachers should be given more of a voice in decisions that affect their schools — which she said they have often been left out of over the last year — and more autonomy in their classrooms.

If that can happen, she said more teachers will rediscover their passion for the job and be more likely to stay.

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