‘It’s time to go’

COVID stress, workload cited among reasons some staff are leaving the school district

As notices of resignation or retirement roll in from people working for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, nearly 100 positions remain open across its 40-plus schools. While district administrators work to fill vacancies amid a nationwide staff shortage, some on the way out say the last couple of years have stretched educators to the limit.

On the way out

There are about 160 staff this fiscal year who have already resigned or retired, or who plan to at the end of the school year, according to data published by the district’s digital hub for board of education documents, BoardDocs.

The approximate 160 staff figure is comparable to previous fiscal years, but does not include retirements or resignations that may be submitted between now and the end of the current fiscal year on June 30. In comparison, the district saw about 170 retirements or resignations in FY2019, about 160 in FY2020 and about 170 in FY2021.

The 160 resignations counted by the Clarion for the 2022 year include certified and support staff, staff who left in the middle of the school year and staff who will leave the district at the end of the current school year. It does not include teachers who took a leave of absence, resignations or retirements that could still come before June 30.

The statistic most important to the district for tracking educator retention is the number of certified teachers who retire or resign at the end of a school year, of which there are currently about 72, as reported by the district. In previous years, the district has reported similar numbers: 75 in FY19, 60 in FY20 and 67 in FY21.

Our survey

In an effort to better understand why staff are leaving the school district, the Clarion reached out to 70 certified and support staff assigned to specific schools who had by March 2022 put in their plan to resign or retire. Certified staff who are not teachers include positions such as principals, counselors, librarians and interventionists.

Staff were given the option to respond to the 10-question survey anonymously. Of the 12 respondents, eight responded anonymously.

While responses varied, multiple respondents cited COVID-19 protocols, workload, the political climate and compensation as reasons for leaving.

Educators’ voices

Alicia Brankel has taught English at Kenai Central High School for three years. She relocated to the central peninsula with her family from Arizona and has worked in education for 22 years. She’s leaving the district this year and doesn’t necessarily plan to stay in education, which she attributed during a follow-up interview with the Clarion to the pressures of COVID and the communication breakdown between teachers and district administrators.

Brankel estimates she works between 50 and 60 hours per week. The combination of stress from COVID and from the high school going through three administrators in as many years, she said, has been too much.

Student participation while remote learning, she said, was “basically nonexistent.” Students who were ahead kept up, but students who were struggling fell further behind. Inconsistencies in the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan, Brankel said, contributed to the skill gaps and absences seen among her students over the last two years.

That’s on top of pressure from the community, which Brankel felt undermined the education and credentials she and other educators attained to teach in classrooms. She specifically criticized what she said were “politically driven” decisions made related to COVID and to pushback she faced on classroom materials.

“Sometimes I feel like it’s more important to keep the parents happy than to educate kids,” Brankel said.

At least three educators cited “politics” or “the political climate” as contributing to their departure from the district. In response to a question that asked what challenges the respondent faced this year, one person who cited politics said “parent driven policy not aligned with curriculum.”

The 2020-2021 school year saw KPBSD and some community members clash over the COVID-19 mitigation policies, such as the wearing of face coverings and quarantine protocols, which some said were too restrictive. Most district students alternated between attending classes in person and attending classes remotely as the rate of COVID-19 transmission in their communities fluctuated.

In response to extended remote learning toward the end of 2020, some parents organized through online platforms to hold public demonstrations against COVID masking protocols. Others in the group said they would keep their children from participating in remote learning if looser protocols weren’t implemented.

Additionally, many of the same political conversations that took place on a national stage played out locally. Summer 2021 saw fiery board of education meetings where parents and community members raised concerns about critical race theory and whether or not pride flags should be allowed to hang in schools. Critical race theory, which the district has repeatedly stated is not taught in classrooms, refers to an academic framework about systemic racism that has become a catch-all phrase for teaching about race in U.S. history.

“Our thoughts and needs are not as important as the (public’s) view of the district,” one southern peninsula educator said.

Another educator, who responded anonymously and reported almost 20 years of service to the district, said challenges they faced over the last two years contributed to their decision to retire earlier than planned, saying, “I do not see it getting better.” Specific challenges affecting Homer-area schools, they said, include political climate, housing shortages and inflation, absences, inconsistent distance education and a lack of areawide social workers.

“I had hoped to go two more years, but I decided it was best to tender my resignation this year,” the respondent said.

Still, not everyone leaving the district this year is resigning. Like most years, there’s a handful of people retiring after many years on the peninsula.

Richard Bartolowits is the principal of Connections, KPBSD’s home-school program. Connections saw a surge in enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the student body jumped by 1,000 students. Bartolowits said in response to the Clarion’s survey that, like many others, his school families struggled with COVID “chaos.” He said he started with KPBSD as a first grade student, 50 years ago, but now, “It’s time to go.”

An anonymous survey respondent, who also said they were retiring after more than 10 years with the district, said it has been their plan all along to retire by 2022. Among the challenges they faced this year were COVID restrictions, which they called “grueling,” particularly masking protocols and large absences among elementary school students.

Bill Vedders, who is resigning this year from Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School after 33 years in education, similarly cited COVID as what moved him to leave.

“I actually planned on teaching 2-3 more years, but all of the COVID restrictions are what made me leave this year,” Vedders said via email.

He specifically took issue with what he called “being micromanaged,” such as being told how to arrange his seating charts and having to rebuild his online learning program after mandated changes forced him to start over.

Vedders said he is “used to” working between 60 and 70 hours a week, but that it’s usually for special projects or extra activities. During COVID, he said, those extra hours are needed “just to keep our heads above water.”

“Sometimes I feel more like a paper correcting machine than a teacher,” Vedders said.

Lack of incentives for educators to move to Alaska and larger class sizes, he added, are poised to make teacher recruitment even more challenging. Vedders cited poor retirement benefits as being one way Alaska struggles both to attract and to retain the “best and brightest” educators for students.

“When I started in the district in 1997 there were hundreds of applications for each teaching job,” Vedders said. “This year we couldn’t even fill a (fourth) grade teaching position in our school.”

Filling vacancies

As of April 18, there were 97 district positions open across KPBSD. The greatest need reported was among elementary school teachers, for which 17 listings were posted. The next highest category was support staff, which had 15 open positions. The district was hiring for 13 special education positions and nine secondary education positions.

KPBSD Human Resources Director Nate Crabtree said Monday that no one job fair will fill all of the district’s vacancies, but they’re experiencing “pockets of success.” Special education positions, Crabtree said, remain the district’s most difficult to fill. In pitching KPBSD jobs to potential applicants, KPBSD Communications Director Pegge Erkeneff said the district’s refrain is, “Life is better in Alaska.”

People are receptive, particularly in the Lower 48, Erkeneff said Monday, to the Kenai Peninsula’s safe neighborhoods, strong sense of community and small school class sizes. The potential for an Alaska adventure is an added bonus.

KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland emphasized Monday that teacher shortages are not unique to the Kenai Peninsula, but rather reflect a nationwide problem. The U.S. Department of Education, for example, issued a call to action last month that outlined steps that can be taken to address the shortage, such as by increasing the number of aspiring teachers ready to enter the field.

When it comes to retaining teachers who already work for the district, Holland said the district has tried to respond to their needs and to be cognizant of the fact that people are tired. For example, he said, the district lowered substitute qualification criteria to help address a districtwide shortage and implemented more early release days as a way to give teachers more time.

Erkeneff also emphasized the professional development opportunities the district made available in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to make the transition to remote learning as smooth as possible.

‘In crisis’

Nathan Erfurth is president of the Kenai Peninsula Education Association, the union that represents the district’s certified staff and has been vocal about his concerns regarding the number of district staff leaving this year. Erfurth reiterated Friday that “people are burned out.”

“The stress is taking its toll this year,” he said.

Erfurth said Friday that there are a few reasons why teachers might not want to relocate to Alaska to fill some of the vacancies. For one, Alaska is the only state in the country that doesn’t offer a pension or Social Security benefits for teachers. Instead, teachers use a 401(k)-style retirement system that Erfurth said is not attractive.

“The odds are you will outlive your retirement and have to go back to work,” Erfurth said.

Mellisa Nill said in response to the Clarion’s survey that she is leaving her position at Kenai Central High School because of family needs and lack of retirement benefits. Nill said that while she has never taught a “normal” school year due to COVID, she loves her school and students and does not envy the district’s position.

“I just want to teach,” she wrote. “I’m glad I don’t have to be the one to make the decisions that needed to be made.”

A lot of teachers who relocate to Alaska, Erfurth said, are looking for adventure or the opportunity to work in a unique school. That’s no longer enough of a draw, though. Erfurth said he has heard from some outgoing educators that they’d like to retire in Alaska if they had a chance.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Cindy Ecklund, who represents the eastern peninsula and also works as a substitute teacher for the district, spoke about the unique struggles staffing shortages pose to Seward-area schools, which she described as being “in crisis.” Exacerbating the problem, she said, is a lack of available and affordable housing in the area.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but our kids deserve a good education,” Ecklund said, highlighting the negative effect staff exits will have on Seward High School and on special ed programming.

Holland said during Monday’s board of education meeting that the district has been in touch with the Alaska Vocational Technical Center about possibly renting dorms to staff as a “temporary” fix to the area’s lack of affordable housing. The superintendent said Monday that this is the first year the district has “heard this level of concern” about housing.

Twenty staff are leaving or have already left Seward’s three schools since last July, including four from Seward Middle School, nine from Seward High School and six from Seward Elementary. Among them are mathematics and science teachers, special education resource teachers or intensive needs aides, a primary grade teacher, a pre-K teacher and a speech language pathologist. Those are in addition to a school nurse, who is resigning as the nurse for Seward area schools.

The district responds

The district this school year has taken steps to address a lack of staff in schools. Implemented last year were new, relaxed hiring eligibility requirements to address the shortage of substitute teachers. Among other things, the district implemented higher pay rates for substitute teachers, replaced a 60-college-credit requirement with a high school diploma or recognized equivalent and eliminated a need for applicants to have three confidential references.

However, those changes may have had unintended consequences, according to Susanna Litwiniak. She is the president of the Kenai Peninsula Educational Support Association, the union that represents the district’s support staff. She told members of the board of education during a meeting last week that the bump in pay for substitutes “led to more severe shortages for support staff.”

“The job market is increasingly competitive and I think it is so important that we work together to make sure that support staff jobs are competitive,” Litwiniak said. “We have a hardworking support staff, but the amount of extra work that they are being asked to take on and covering for positions that are not filled and covering for sick colleagues when there are no subs is not sustainable.”

Holland, in a written response to concerns voiced by survey respondents, highlighted the steps the district has taken to address staff stress, such as the bump in pay for substitutes, providing COVID leave to staff and adding weekly early release days for most of the second semester.

Holland also highlighted the district’s decisions to offer staff contracts in February this year, earlier than usual. The board of education approved hundreds of contracts in February, the earliest in the district’s history, which the district said was meant to offer a sense of stability to staff.

“We are doing our best to meet the needs of our staff, and the mission to keep our schools open for students this entire year,” Holland wrote.

Erkeneff confirmed Friday that the district has already been offering contracts and hiring candidates, in addition to actively recruiting staff through in-person job fairs, virtual career events, digital campaigns and outreach through individual schools.

Holland wrote that the COVID pandemic, inflation, housing shortages and a need to be near family outside the peninsula contributed to resignations and retirements this year, but said it’s also important to know why some staff have decided to stay at the district.

“We are in the process of creating a staff survey that my leadership team and I will review,” Holland wrote. “It is important to appreciate the staff who will be coming back next year, and wish the best to those who are leaving, many after several decades of service to our youth.”

Erfurth said KPEA has put together multiple ad hoc committees to engage the district on solutions, but that finding people from the district office to participate can be difficult.

“We definitely want to work with the district on making schools better … we all have the same goal,” Erfurth said.

He emphasized that the union and district staff want to work with the district to come up with solutions to problems, but that if they’re going to collaborate there needs to be results.

“Listen to your educators,” Erfurth said.

View employment opportunities with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District at www.applitrack.com/kpbsd/onlineapp.

Reach Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.