Oklahoma’s teacher shortage is growing more severe with the spread of COVID-19. More teachers are opting for retirement than last year, and many say fear of going back into the classroom is the reason.

Norman fifth-grade teacher Anne Ham cut her career short because of the virus.

Ham, 61, has asthma. Her husband is 73. They decided the health risk was too great for her to return to her Lincoln Elementary School classroom.

Nationally 1.5 million teachers, or one in four, have health conditions that put them at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of 2018 National Health Interview Survey data.

“It was a really hard decision,” said Ham, who taught for 35 years in Oklahoma, Illinois and Kansas. “It’s a huge part of my identity. Two-thirds of my life I’ve been a teacher.”

She planned to teach at least one more year so she would qualify for full retirement benefits. But the additional money would not be worth it if she succumbed to the disease, she said.

“I can’t tell you how relieved I am I don’t have to deal with it,” Ham said. “I’m going to miss the kids of course and the creativity of coming up with lessons that will engage them. It’s hard.”

Teachers’ Retirement System of Oklahoma records show 2,579 teachers retired during the 2019-20 school year. Their average age was 63.

“So far we are seeing a slight but measurable uptick in retirements for September and October of this year,” said Tom Spencer, executive director for the Teachers’ Retirement System.

By mid-August, the number of teachers scheduled to begin retirement in September and October was 333, an increase of 51 from 2019. Teachers have until Sept. 1 to file the final paperwork for Oct. 1 retirement, Spencer said. 

Teachers are not asked why they choose to retire, but many have voluntarily mentioned a fear of the coronavirus, he said.

“We could have more folks that just decided not to teach this year,” Spencer said. “They could resign and send in their first retirement papers now or in the next few weeks. We have no way to predict that.” 

“I’m going to miss the kids of course and the creativity of coming up with lessons that will engage them. It’s hard,” said former Lincoln Elementary School teacher Anne Ham, shown here in January with her fifth-grade students in Norman. Ham decided to retire one year early because of health concerns stemming from COVID-19. (Courtesy Anne Ham)

To Teach or Not to Teach

Sabra Tucker, executive director of the Oklahoma Retired Educators Association, said teachers have been calling “to lament about their options.”

“Teachers who planned to stay one or two more years have decided to bite the bullet. Their health and safety outweighed the risk,” Tucker said. “It’s definitely a real trend.”

Some not yet eligible for retirement have told her they will take a year off and then go back, or they will go to work for one of the virtual charter schools. Others said they will try teaching in their school for a semester and then reevaluate the situation.

Geri Ayers, a former English teacher who is a board member for Chisholm Public Schools in Enid, said the board approved eight staff resignations at its meeting Aug. 5, one week before in-person school started. 

“They’re just afraid. Several others have gone back into the classroom but are afraid,” Ayers said. “With the teacher shortage, it’s really become a strain on the schools.”

Among those resigning was Lindy LeGrant, an upper-level math teacher at Chisholm High School. That position can be difficult to fill, especially with short notice.

LeGrant, 64, said she watched the number of COVID-19 cases growing across the nation, beginning in New York where her son lives. As the first day of school grew closer, cases were increasing in her community and the state.

“I just wasn’t comfortable returning,” she said. “I thought about it a long time. It was difficult to make that decision.”

LeGrant said after she resigned the principal asked if she would teach from home instead and she agreed. Her students are in a classroom with an adult supervisor. 

“It’s challenging to make sure I can give these kids the best I can, but young people are so adaptable,” she said.

Retirements Increasing Shortage

Teachers resigning in higher numbers due to COVID-19 has been reported from New York to Utah, raising concerns about the nationwide shortage of qualified teachers. 

EdWeek Research Center reported 12% of teachers surveyed in May say the coronavirus may cause them to leave the profession even though they were not planning to before the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the number of new teachers beginning a career is declining. Students in traditional teacher preparation programs fell 47% from 2009 to 2017 both nationally and in Oklahoma, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Districts have relied on veteran teachers deferring retirement and on alternate pathways to certification to fill the gap. 

Oklahoma City Public Schools reports 68 teachers retired in the school year ending June 30 compared to 56 teachers the previous year. 

The district will start the school year Monday with all virtual classes. On Wednesday, a district spokeswoman said 27 teaching positions remained unfilled and 271 positions were filled by emergency certified teachers.

When districts cannot find a certified teacher, the Oklahoma State Board of Education can approve hiring someone who isn’t certified in the subject they teach. Some have no classroom experience or training at all.

In the past three months, the board has approved emergency certification for 2,010 teachers statewide. The number for all of 2019-20 was 2,697, more than five times the number of emergency certifications five years earlier. 

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