Pandemic’s Impact On Education Reveals Cracks in Public School System
By Taryn Courville
Holly Barajas had enough.
It was the end of a pandemic-ridden school year for this first-grade teacher. It, too, marked a final chapter in a two-decade-long career, where the emotional highs of seeing her work’s impact on children were fraught with the frustrations that came with the job.
Long hours and low pay. Society’s strong demands yet weak support weighed on her work. And then came feelings of disrespect.
“My husband was sitting on the porch, and I walked out, and I said, ‘That’s it. I’m done,’” Holly Barajas said. “I didn’t have a backup plan.”
Across Texas, school districts are feeling the impacts of the exodus of teachers and desperately trying to fill the gaps left behind. In Austin Independent School District, a total of 998 teachers have resigned or retired since March 2021, compared with 728 from March 2020 to 2021 and 629 from March 2019 to 2020.
“My colleagues that have left, as well as myself, we left the teaching profession,” Barajas said. “And that, to me, as an educator and as a parent … is terrifying.”
A variety of factors have contributed to teachers leaving the classrooms behind them, it isn’t simply that they no longer love the profession. Unrealistic expectations, insufficient pay and struggles with behavior are a few of the reasons teachers have left, Barajas said. A specific event she noted was the HB3 Reading Academies mandated by the Texas Education Agency for kindergarten through third-grade teachers. The course, paid for by Austin ISD, would be 60 hours of work outside of instruction that teachers would not be paid for. She had one teacher friend retire simply because of this mandated course, she said.
“What other career would expect you to do 60 hours with no pay?” Barajas asked. “[They’re] adding more to the teacher’s plate when they need to be taking things off.”
Barajas left teaching behind because she said she felt disrespected and had reached her breaking point. That doesn’t stop her from feeling guilt for leaving, she said. She watches as the mental and physical health of her friends that stayed deteriorates while they try to make the best of their situation.
Heidi Connealy, a parent to two Austin ISD students, said that between her two daughters, four teachers have quit. Her younger daughter, a fourth-grade student, had one teacher that didn’t show up at the beginning of the school year and another quit at the end of the first semester. Her older daughter, an eighth-grade student, had a history teacher quit during the first week of the school year and an English teacher quit later. The history teacher was replaced by a science teacher and her daughter lost a semester of English instruction due to the time it took to find a replacement, Connealy said.
The teachers that left gave a few reasons for their departures, including changes in the district, the demanding environment and pay. Based on what she’s heard from her children and parent groups, Connealy also suspects challenging student behavior played a role, she said.
“I think that [my children] are learning about systems that sometimes are just too big to deal with yourself,” Connealy said. “I think they’re definitely more aware of teaching being a difficult job, which is a good thing.”
Lori Blewett’s son began attending an Austin ISD school in August 2020, and in the span of one and half years, he had four different teachers. When he started first grade virtually, his initial teacher was experienced and great, but she retired only a few months into the year, Blewett said. His next teacher lasted for the rest of the year, but she taught both in-person and virtual students, which made the learning experience a little different, she said.
When he started second grade, his teacher quit early in the year and the replacement for the remainder of the semester was an employee from the district office. Blewett’s son started the spring semester in person before Blewett felt the risk of the Omicron variant was too great and switched him back to learning from home. Soon after, Blewett withdrew her son from Austin ISD to switch to an online-only school, because doing worksheets wasn’t the education experience she wanted for her son, she said.
“He hasn’t really experienced what it’s like to have a normal school year, so I don’t even know that he knows that he’s only supposed to have one teacher for the whole year. I think he’s adapted well, and I think that’s a positive.” Blewett said. “However, I do think that there’s a downside that he hasn’t been able to develop deeper relationships with a teacher.”
In the case of Aidan Merchant’s first-grader, he had a teacher take a longer than anticipated medical leave. With the shortage of substitutes, the school was unable to find a long-term substitute to cover the class, and the students ended up being split into other classes with different grades.
Merchant’s son spent weeks sitting in the corner of a second-grade classroom with little instruction and supervision, she said. His school days were made up of worksheets and playing on his tablet for hours. And with the lack of supervision, he was exposed to bullying from his classmates.
“He went from being engaged by a teacher who was there to promote education, and who was actually watching the students, to being completely ignored,” Merchant said.
His teacher has since returned, the bullying has stopped and he is engaged in learning again. However, the teacher has announced her intentions to retire following this year and the school is already having a difficult time filling open positions, Merchant said.
School leaders from Austin ISD say they are doing what they can to fill gaps and keep students from being left behind. However, they acknowledge that substitutes and district employees can’t replace teachers, said Eduardo Villa, media relations specialist for Austin ISD.
“Students not having teachers in the classroom are definitely impacted in some way,” Villa said. “[Teachers] are the educators in the classrooms and really nobody can replace them.”
While it would be easy to blame the pandemic for teachers leaving, the pandemic has only shown the existing cracks in the education system, Barajas said. Teachers play an important role in society but are being overworked and undervalued.
Since leaving behind teaching, Barajas has started her own business. Through her company, Beautifully Wired, Barajas acts as a consultant for families of neurodiverse children, she said. So, even though she’s left the classroom, Barajas is still helping children and their families learn and grow.