John Maus is superintendent at Thompson Public Schools, a district tucked away in southern Grand Forks County where about 600 students are learning in-person. He’s got the same kind of gritty perseverance that’s typical in interviews with educators — and especially for school leaders. He’s clearly proud of his teachers.
But now, with COVID scrambling this year’s lesson plans — and forcing an overhaul in how those teachers do their jobs — Maus also knows exactly how much strain they’re under.
"I think similar to most districts, there have been some days that you've been stretched pretty thin. On a day-to-day basis, you never know,” he said, recalling teachers pitching in to cover for one another’s absences. “Last week, there were a couple days that we had a principal in the classroom and a counselor teaching P.E."
Teaching is a famously dawn-til-dusk job — managing kids’ energy and dozens of homework assignments and the futures of students who depend on a good education. But in the time of coronavirus, North Dakota educators are especially pinched, balancing safety demands and the needs of students out sick with a pandemic virus. The job is extra-challenging now, for teachers both in the classroom and teaching remotely.
“It’s definitely not an easy job, and now you dump gasoline onto that fire the way it has been this year,” said Jordan Holingsworth, who heads the teachers’ union in Park River. “I worry about some of our older teachers that are being asked to manage technology, things they’ve never been asked to manage before. I worry about first-year teachers, that this is their first experience in education.”
And teachers in multiple districts describe a steady, exhausting year. Educators now find themselves using a prep period to cover for a teacher out sick, or juggling the demands of their in-person classroom with a cohort of students who are quarantining at home.
“I think the people I talk to, we are exhausted this year and hoping this is a one-year thing and that we can get a little bit back to normal next year,” said Melissa Bucchop, president of Grand Forks Public Schools’ education association.
But some might not stick around for next year. North Dakota United, the statewide teacher’s union, released a survey of its K-12 members earlier this month that shows 65% of respondents had at least considered leaving the profession or retiring. While only 1% said they were leaving, fully 30% were considering it, with another 7% thinking of retiring. Another 24% had considered leaving or retiring, but ultimately had decided to stay.
"What we have learned from the survey of our members is this: they are feeling a great deal of stress teaching in this pandemic,” Archuleta said. “They're very concerned about the health of their students, the health of their students' families, their colleagues and themselves."
And the survey offers a potentially gloomy look at the future of rural schools in particular, where teacher recruitment and retention are critical.
In Grand Forks, students were learning on a hybrid model, with some fully digital learners and some coming to the classroom in person. But with rising coronavirus numbers, all in-person students are about to transition to digital learning from Thanksgiving until Jan. 4. Terry Brenner, Grand Forks’ superintendent, said the move comes amid rising in-building staff absences, with COVID sending custodians, support staff and teachers into isolation.
The change caps a trying start to the year. Linsey Rood, the school district’s human resources director, downplayed any worries about teacher retention.
“I wouldn’t call it an expectation. I think there’s definitely a concern there, of increased retirements or increased resignations,” Rood said. “However, there’s always that need.”
During an interview Tuesday with the Herald, broadcast live on the newspaper’s website, Brenner said teacher retention is a concern — one that existed even before the pandemic.
“Is there a concern? Absolutely,” Brenner said. “Here is a really interesting statistic: 50 percent of our certified staff, almost 400 out of 800 people, are in their first six years in the profession. And we already know what research says about our Generation Zers and millennials, that they are likely not going to sustain a profession their entire career, even though we are one of the few professional opportunities that have a pension associated with it. So I think we are going to see some stability with our mid-career and veteran staff. I’m not sure about our teachers in the first part of their career.”
Brenner has two other concerns: He said that the teaching profession “to a degree has lost some respect within the public sector” and also that universities may not be turning out enough candidates for the growing number of positions available.
And the changeover into digital learning could make things more difficult. Mike Bisenius, a history teacher in Grand Forks Public Schools, spoke to the Herald shortly before classes began in August — back when it was still unclear what the pandemic would mean for students. As the year has gone on, Bisenius said he’s been glad to have the chance to teach students in person, and said he’ll miss the personal connections he can make when kids are in the classroom.
“I had that happen today. A student was having some difficulty, so I just came up when at the end, and said, ‘Hey, don't worry about this. I know you're missing some assignments. I'll get what you need in order to succeed,’” He said. “Online, I can see that there's a kid who might be having an issue. But it's much harder to reach them.”
Hollingsworth, the Park River union chief, points out that teachers are an empathetic group, and they often find themselves reflecting the emotions of their students. This year, students are stressed — and so are parents and so are other members of the community.
“It’s almost like that stress that’s inherently always there and teachers were dealing with has been thrown into a microwave, and it’s gotten a lot worse really quickly,” he said. “I just think that’s a big part of it.”