Teacher sits with two students showing them a paper. A boy student holds his hand over his mouth in surprise.

VA Teacher Turnover Dropped, Then Increased After COVID’s Arrival

More teachers returned to their classrooms in the fall of 2020 than in the previous 8 years, then teacher retention dropped dramatically in the fall of 2021.

Audrey Breen

New research published by the EdPolicyWorks research center at the University of Virginia shows significant swings in the Virginia public schools’ teacher turnover rate the two school years following the onset of the pandemic. The researchers reviewed data from 2012 to 2022 and found both the lowest and highest levels of teacher attrition in the two years following the arrival of COVID-19.

In partnership with the Virginia Department of Education, the research team analyzed data from 132 public school divisions across Virginia. In the Fall of 2020, 82.6% of Virginia public school teachers returned to the same school where they were teaching when the pandemic hit the prior school year. This was the highest rate of return in any school year between 2012 and 2022. Conversely, only 78.9% of teachers returned to their same school in Fall 2021. 

“This swing from the highest to the lowest return rates equates to roughly 3500 additional teachers not returning in Fall 2021,” said Luke Miller, research associate professor at the UVA School of Education and Human Development and lead researcher on the study.

The researchers tracked the number of teachers who return to teach at the same school and those who “exhibit mobility,” which includes teachers who leave the profession entirely, and those who transfer—either to a non-classroom teaching school, or to a different role at the same school. These roles might include becoming a reading or math specialist or an assistant principal, for example. Across the state, Miller found that an increase in the departure rate (teachers who left the profession) accounted for almost half of the increase in teacher turnover.

According to Miller, there are specific advantages to teachers returning.

“Turnover challenges the strength of relationships among the teachers, as well as between teachers and students,” Miller said. “These relationships are key to making the school a good place to work and learn. When a teacher leaves, she takes with her specific knowledge about the school’s students and community that can improve teaching and learning.”

It is often true that the teachers hired to replace those that leave have less or no prior classroom experience, according to Miller.

Teacher Retention and the Teacher Shortage

As seen across the nation, Virginia is experiencing a teacher shortage, especially in specific areas. According to Miller, understanding teacher retention is a key part of addressing the teacher shortage.

“First and foremost, tracking these trends tells us whether we are doing enough to retain teachers,” Miller said. “The trends tell us very clearly that we are not.”

According to Miller, these analyses can also highlight areas where retention efforts are particularly falling short.

“The pandemic is undoing efforts to increase the diversity of Virginia’s teacher workforce,” Miller said.

The team found that, across Virginia, the departure rates of Black and Hispanic teachers increased more between 2019 and 2021 than they did for White teachers, and more so for female than male teachers.

Research has consistently shown that teacher turnover is higher in schools with more students from economically disadvantaged and minoritized backgrounds compared to schools with fewer of these students. In this study, the researchers found that the differences between the schools has decreased with the pandemic. However, Miller warns that it is not actually good news.

“We shouldn’t look at [the narrowing of this difference] as some sort of silver lining, as it was achieved with increased teacher turnover rather than increased teacher retention,” Miller said.

Instead, the hope would be for more teachers to remain in schools with more students from economically disadvantaged and minoritized backgrounds rather than more teachers leave schools with fewer of these students.

The Impact of COVID

This study is a part of an ongoing partnership between EdPolicyWorks, a collaboration between the UVA School of Education and Human Development and the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, and the Virginia Department of Education to study the impact of the pandemic on Virginia’s public schools. Previous research briefs published as part of the work examine student enrollment and mobility, student performance, and English Learners.

Miller and his team are currently analyzing data on teacher licensure, students with disabilities, special education teachers and transitions to post-secondary education.

Virginia Policy Partnership Collaborative

This work is part of the ongoing efforts aimed at connecting UVA researchers and students with education policymakers to address pressing education problems in the Commonwealth through careful research.

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Audrey Breen