Catherine Good, 58, never dreamed she’d retire from teaching during a global pandemic.
“When the whole COVID thing came up, then it was like, OK, is this really how I want to end?” she said. “Is this the way I want to go out?”
Good, a special education teacher from Warren, Mich., had summer 2020 in her sights for retirement long before the emergence of the coronavirus. But countless other teachers nationwide are grappling with whether to retire, resign, or take an unpaid leave of absence rather than face a workplace riddled with uncertainty and health risks. Like Good, many dislike the idea of closing the curtain on decades of faithful service during such an unsettled time.
“Everything that I believe in, I can’t do,” said kindergarten teacher Mary Morris of Toledo, Ohio. The veteran Catholic school educator at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School said she reached her breaking point after realizing the struggle of keeping a roomful of 5-year-old children socially distant or stopping them from sharing toys and classroom supplies. “It’s all going to be paper and pencil,” she said. “And that’s when I sat down and I thought, ‘What am I doing?’”
Christina Curfman of Hamilton, Va., is 55 and suffers from an autoimmune disease. She has two adult children. She told WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C., she decided to leave the classroom rather than risk the consequences of catching the coronavirus: “I want to be here for my kids the rest of the time I can.”
Others, like Liza McArdle, of Ann Arbor, Mich., feel the COVID-19 requirements make it impossible to do their jobs. The 50-year-old educator couldn’t reconcile teaching French and Spanish with a mask blocking her face.
No one knows how many more teachers will leave over the coming weeks as schools wrestle with their fall plans. But signs point to a looming wave of resignations. The Michigan Education Association, the state’s teachers union, surveyed more than 15,000 Michigan educators in May. It found 32 percent said they were seriously considering retiring early or leaving the profession, and 8 percent said they already had left.
The average annual rate of teacher attrition across the country is 8 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That means, at least in Michigan, the number of teachers not coming back already hit the average with a little more than a month to go until the new school year begins after Labor Day.
The exodus could leave many schools with staffing gaps. An anticipated teacher shortage led three major districts around Washington, D.C., to scrap plans for in-person classes and go fully virtual. Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools reported about 10 percent of its teaching force requested health exemptions under the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the rate of applications for leaves of absence doubled. The neighboring Loudoun County Public Schools, where Curfman taught, received an unprecedented number of leave requests and resignations this summer, leading it to also decide not to offer in-person instruction.
But despite the upheaval, many teachers are choosing to stay put.
“I kind of don’t come from a family that retires,” 64-year-old Philadelphia High School for Girls math teacher Vicki Baker told Time. “I feel like we have one time to get this right because there’s so many things at risk.”
After praying about whether it was the right time, Good went ahead with her early retirement. She plans to care for her aging parents and serve in the mission field. Good briefly worked as a missionary in the 1990s in Europe and has participated in numerous projects with her church over the years.
“All along, my plan has been when I retire, I want to go back to the mission field,” she said. “Now I have time.”