Survey says state’s educators are burning out fast

Educators from St. Paul and Minneapolis rallied together near the Lake Street bridge Sept. 30, urging their districts to engage with them in decisions about reopening school buildings.

In-person, online or with a hybrid approach, classes have resumed at public schools across Minnesota. While models differ from district to district, a new survey finds that educators are having similar experiences marked by stress, anxiety and overwhelming workloads.

Applications for retirement benefits, meanwhile, are on the rise – a troubling sign for a profession already facing worker shortages.

In light of the findings, Education Minnesota President Denise Specht, the highest-ranking officer of the statewide educators union, urged district leaders to recalibrate their models and bargain in good faith with local unions over the terms of pandemic learning.

“Our public schools won’t function if thousands of educators burn out and leave,” Specht said. “It’s time to adjust.”

The survey, conducted in September, asked members of Education Minnesota the question, “How are you currently feeling about your work as an educator?”

Among the nearly 9,500 members who responded, 79% reported feeling stressed, 73% felt overwhelmed and 51% said they worried about their mental health.

Teachers working in different education modes at the same time – both in-person and online, for example – reported the highest levels of stress and anxiety in Education Minnesota’s survey, suggesting the hybrid approach may not be sustainable over the full school year.

That’s a message Kaia Hirt, an English teacher from the Anoka-Hennepin school district, brought to a public gathering of educators Sept. 30 in Minneapolis. Hybrid learning has been a “circus” in her district, Hirt said. She pointed to constantly shifting expectations, murky health protocols and impossible workloads.

Hirt, whose district has since dialed back in-person learning, had a warning for educators from the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts, where remote learning remains the primary mode: “Don’t let them take you to the circus.”

In the metro, representatives of the school districts and educators unions have been discussing a potential hybrid return to classrooms for most students.

Both sides say in-person learning is the ultimate goal, but union members say the process has not adequately engaged educators or taken into consideration the needs of communities of color and multilingual families, who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

“We need to stop talking about equity, and start being about equity,” Lindsey West, a teacher at Barton Open School in Minneapolis, said.

Making St. Paul’s school buildings safe for in-person learning, SPFE member Linda Jones said, would require large-scale investments, particularly in a district that serves communities hit hardest by COVID-19. Funding for that work has been held up by gridlock at the federal level.

“I give our national leaders an ‘F’ because their extremely irresponsible response to Covid has failed our people,” Jones said. “It is our duty and our obligation to not fuel the fires of the virus, but rather work to slow its spread. This means we do not open our schools to in-person learning until the virus is contained.”

In addition to pumping the brakes on in-person learning, educators want their districts to reconsider expectations for remote learning that have too many staff members burning out. “It is the fourth week of school, and we are already trying to figure out how we can keep this up,” St. Paul education assistant Yasmin Muridi said.

Widespread burnout could be disastrous for the state’s education system in the long run.

Education Minnesota’s survey found nearly three in 10 respondents were thinking about quitting or retiring, a trend backed up by the Teachers Retirement Association of Minnesota, which reported to the union that applications for retirement benefits increased by 35% in August and September 2020, compared to the same period last year.

“The goal remains to safely reopen school buildings and resume in-person learning, but this pandemic has taught everyone to be flexible,” Specht said. “This isn’t the time for finger pointing, but it is time to adapt.”

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