Hawaii had 25% more public school teachers retire or resign during the 2020-21 academic year compared with the previous year, a sign that pandemic-related fatigue could be driving educators away from the job.

According to numbers provided by the Department of Education, 428 teachers retired in the last school year, compared with 287 in 2019-20, 274 the year before that and 275 in the school year ending in 2018.

Another 771 educators resigned from DOE in the last school year for non-retirement reasons — such as leaving the state, moving to a different job or quitting for family or personal reasons — compared with 674 in 2019-20 and 755 in 2018-19.

Altogether, that reflects 1,199 teacher separations from the DOE last year, compared with 961 the prior year.

Lanai High and Elementary School. Elementary school teacher Ninez Abonal teaches as students are socially distanced and sit behind plastic barriers.
The DOE had 1,199 teachers retire or resign in the 2020-21 school year compared with 961 the year before. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

It’s a source of concern in a state that already is grappling with a teacher shortage. The challenges have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which shut down campuses in March 2020 and forced most students to learn in a virtual setting all of last school year.

Teachers, meanwhile, had to quickly transition to online teaching as well as deal with their own personal pandemic-related concerns. Then, when schools began to transition back to in-person learning with a hybrid model, many teachers often found themselves doing double duty online and in the classroom.

This year, the challenges are particularly acute, as staffing shortages extend to support personnel like school bus drivers and substitutes, on whom the DOE heavily depends.

On the island of Kauai last month, complex area superintendent Paul Zina even had to fill in for a teacher at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School one day due to the substitute shortage crisis.

“Like other districts, school/complex area staff have been voluntarily helping to fill in at schools where/when needed,” DOE spokeswoman Krislyn Yano said in response to Zina’s actions.

Osa Tui Jr., president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, lamented the decline in staff levels and said the onus is on state officials to address the decampments.

“As we see more of our teachers continue to flee the profession this year with classes often going without substitutes, decision makers from the governor to the superintendent and the Board of Education need to take emergency measures right away to stop the continued destabilization of the education workforce,” he said in a statement.

Survey Showed Stress

The fatigue and stress felt by many teachers during the pandemic were reflected in an end-of-year survey disseminated in May with 10,350 respondents from a pool of 13,100 total teachers.

Results from that survey, which had not previously been posted on the DOE website or shared with the public but were released to Civil Beat through a public records request, show that many teachers contemplated quitting or retiring by this summer.

According to the survey, 364 indicated they would quit teaching this summer, while another 201 said they planned to retire. That was based on a total sum of roughly 9,000 respondents.

“If many of them do follow through on their plans,” a DOE report analyzing the results stated, “the (DOE) may face an even greater teacher shortage next school year.”

More than half the teachers surveyed also said they worked at least six extra hours per week due to the pandemic while others expressed the need for more time for lesson planning and collaboration with their colleagues.

The high number of teacher departures coincides with the DOE’s emphasis on bringing all students back for in-person learning this school year, which began in early August, to counteract the negative effects distance learning had on many students and staff.

Most kids are back on campus this year, but not all. Among 154,500 students in the DOE, 2,315 students, or 1.5% of the total, are still participating in a distance learning plan offered either at their school or via a statewide program.

The challenges facing teachers continue to evolve. While last year’s frustrations were defined by DOE’s constant fluctuations in how and when to bring students back to campus, this year is dominated more by health concerns due to the high number of people in one place, according to Maui High teacher Lisa Morrison.

Of Maui High’s 2,000 students, only around 20 are participating in the statewide distance learning plan, she said.

“The beginning of last year was chaotic because the department had no clear plan. And the problem last year was never knowing when it would change,” she said. “What has been stressful about this year is never knowing when you’ll be a close contact (to someone who tests positive for Covid-19).”

Though the peak of Covid-19 infections fueled by the delta variant has passed, DOE schools saw an uptick in cases as campuses re-opened at the height of the variant’s spread in August. A total 3,926 cumulative school-based cases have been reported as of Oct. 12, per a DOE dashboard.

Kaneohe Elementary had five teachers retire last year, a sharp rise from a typical rate of one retirement — if that — each year, according to principal Derek Minakami. He said Covid safety concerns and hybrid teaching accelerated the rate of departures while some instructors left due to having to care for an elderly parent.

Additionally, one teacher just quit in the first quarter of the current school year.

“She just felt burned out,” Minakami said. “She was feeling it from the previous year.”

Principals Want More Training

Kaneohe Elementary School Principal Derek Minakami.
Kaneohe Elementary School Principal Derek Minakami. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Principals were also surveyed in a DOE end-of-year survey in May.

Among the highlights of those results: 41% of principals surveyed, or 88 of 217 respondents, said they wanted more training in “managing a virtual organization.”

Meanwhile, 72% of the principals said they felt the most important strategy to help students catch up this fall from learning disruptions was in-person tutoring, followed closely by more after-school programs.

217 principals surveyed, or 34%, said they felt that DOE leaders could improve communications by informing schools before the broader public about top-level decisions.

Some principals said they felt the department should have been planning a fully virtual program well before the new school year.

They also proposed specific ideas for improvements, including an extended school year, targeted tutoring in subjects like reading and math, and focused summer learning programs with more classes offered at more schools.

“A quick, cracker-jack summer program with a bunch of subs and tutors will not make much impact; but a quality plan with teachers and trained (part time teachers) in the fall will,” read one of the comments.

A report from DOE released in August shows that official summer school this past year reached 5,207 students across 16 schools, though the report said enrollment was up 21% from the year before.

Most of the feedback from the teachers surveyed was driven around the need to be better trained to provide social emotional learning to their students and also feel emotionally supported in their roles.

“In order to create conditions for students to effectively engage in (social emotional learning), adults themselves need to feel empowered, supported and valued,” one commenter wrote.

Morrison recalls taking the teacher survey back in May but said she found the results not terribly useful to educators like herself. She said there are many teachers who are doing great things with social emotional learning, but those methods are “not meaningfully shared in a way we can learn from them, and that’s too bad.”

She said she can only speak to her own school, which she said took a unique approach with addressing students’ needs this year as far as focusing on their mental and physical well-being.

The school included the input of students who helped design a plan to provide an all-school orientation to students, given this was the first time freshmen and many sophomores ever set foot on the school campus. Those components include a physical tour of the school, finding the right people or resources, and how to implement better time management skills like getting enough sleep.

“I feel I started off this year with a better relationship with students than I ever had,” Morrison said.

“When you have the kids in that state of mind, you can teach them anything, no matter the subject,” she added. “You have to develop the relationships first. I felt my school has done a good job with that.”

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