Alaska’s schools have long struggled to attract and retain teachers and support staff. That was the case even before COVID-19 hit and upended education worldwide.
The pandemic has only made things more challenging, say education officials, as the strains from burnout and absenteeism pile stress on a system that was already buckling under the pressure.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is among the many districts in Alaska having trouble filling open jobs and keeping current staff.
For the head of the local teachers union, teacher retention is the number one priority.
“As far as this particular issue is concerned, this has always been an elephant in the room,” said Nathan Erfurth, president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association. “But the lights were off. We were not looking around in the corners of the room. COVID flipped on the fluorescents and we can see everything right now.”
Burnout is one factor contributing to a nationwide teacher exodus. Erfurth said about 18 teachers are planning on leaving the Kenai school district this year, and he’s expecting a big spike in the spring, when contracts come out. In general, he said, he’s heard a lot more discussion this year from teachers who are thinking about resigning, as they try to contend with the ongoing stress of the pandemic and national battles about school curriculum.
At the same time, it’s becoming harder for teachers to support themselves. The pandemic has put more strain on already sparse daycare services and affordable housing. Erfurth said there’s at least one new administrator in Seward who hasn’t been able to find housing for his family since he moved to the district in the fall.
“At the beginning of the year, I was talking to one of our local landlords and he was telling me that he had zero available units,” said Erfurth. “And we were trying to hire, at that time, 25 different teaching positions across the school district.”
At a recent school board meeting, Kenai Superintendent Clayton Holland said he’s working with administrators in Seward to find more housing for teachers and their families.
The problem is hardly unique to the Kenai Peninsula.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy convened a task force in 2020 to find out why schools were having trouble recruiting and retaining employees.
The state is part of the problem, said Tom Klaameyer, president of Alaska’s branch of the National Education Association teachers union. He said low funding from the state has impacted teachers everywhere, who now have to do more with less.
“We used to be sort of the model in the country for teacher recruitment and retention and compensation,” he said. “And we’ve lost a lot of ground there with flat funding, for the last decade, approximately.”
Retirement benefits for teachers in Alaska have also gotten worse, he said. Over 15 years ago, the state gutted its pension system. Without good retirement, there’s an “educational tourists” problem, he said. Teachers stay in their districts for four to five years and then leave. Research shows that higher turnover is associated with lower outcomes for students and higher costs for districts.
There is a bill working its way through the Alaska Legislature now that would improve retirement benefits for public sector employees, including teachers.
The problems hit even harder in more remote areas. Klaameyer said the rate of turnover for Alaska’s rural districts is above the statewide average
“And in Alaska, just like in all other career fields, it’s a special person that wants to come to Alaska and live here, especially the further you get from the road system,” he said. “That’s always been a challenge, and it’s an even greater one now.”
School districts are also struggling to hire support staff — the critical behind-the-scenes positions that keep schools running.
There are almost 25 open support staff positions in the Kenai district. The district has had to up its recruitment game in the last year, raising pay for nurses and changing hiring requirements for substitute teachers to make employment more attractive.
Susanna Litwiniak, who represents support staff with the Kenai Peninsula Educational Support Association, said the unfilled jobs become unbearable when COVID exposures are also keeping staff out of school.
“What it looks like is the custodian greeting the kids in the morning and making sure that they’re keeping a 6-foot distance because there aren’t enough teachers to do that. And then the custodian helping in the lunch room because the lunch room is short staffed,” she said.
Retaining school staff is just part of the equation. National studies say the pandemic is turning many teachers-to-be away from the profession in the first place.
Erfurth said he understands why.
“Because they’re seeing what we’re going through and it’s not attractive,” he said.
But despite all the challenges, he said people stick around because they love what they do. It’s just important to them that their schools love them back.