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Education association members had warned of 'unsustainable' stress levels affecting educators.

Oregon City School District teachers have left the district at three times the typical rate over the past school year compared with the turnover rate from 2018-19, which was the last school year not affected by COVID.COURTESY PHOTO: OCHS - Jocelyn Flores, a Spanish teacher at Oregon City High School, recently participated in Spirit Week.

Oregon City's large increase in teacher turnover came after 41.5% of OC teachers surveyed last fall cited "unsustainable stress levels." COVID safety protocols and staffing shortages were among the factors contributing what teachers called "unsustainable" stress levels impacting their physical and/or mental health.

A total of 90 Oregon City teachers left the school district in 2021-22, compared with only 30 in 2018-19; there were about 460 teachers working in OC during the last school year. In late August, OCSD officials released the latest resignation/retirement data in response to a public-records request from Pamplin Media Group.COURTESY PHOTO: OCHS - Oregon City High School's Shanna Welch, a special education instructional assistant, recently participated in Spirit Week.

Oregon City Education Association's survey last fall confirmed what many teachers had already suspected, that 80% of teachers agree that current workloads are heavier compared to a pre-pandemic school year, forcing most teachers to work evenings and weekends. "Student behavior" and "additional student needs related to the pandemic" were listed by most teachers in the survey as contributing to increased workloads.

OCSD HR Director Lisa Normand said national factors like the pandemic and the economy have played a significant role in the recruitment and retention of public educators, creating a teacher shortage across the state.

"Even though a number of staff have left, we have been able to hire many high-quality teachers for the fall, many of whom have roots here in Oregon City or live in the community," Normand said. "Oregon City School District is working closely with Oregon City Education Association to create a work environment that is supportive and encouraging for educators. We look forward to hearing from our teachers about what they need to be the best they can be for our Oregon City students."

Among the reasons cited by Oregon City teachers for leaving, "taking a job in another Oregon school district" became much more common during the latest school year, with 43 OC teachers leaving for another district in 2021-22, compared with only nine in 2018-19. With the statewide teacher shortage, Normand said it was not uncommon to see teachers moving to districts closer to their homes or extended families. COURTESY PHOTO: OCHS - Nathan Lambert, a math teacher at Oregon City High School, recently participated in Spirit Week by dressing in a 1960s theme.

OC teachers retired last year at about the same rate, with 14 retiring at the end of the 2021-22 school year compared to 12 retiring in the spring of 2019. Other reasons that teachers gave for handing in their resignations included moving out of state (two in 2019 vs. three in 2022), health (one in 2019 vs. six in 2022) and family reasons (two in 2019 vs. four in 2022).

In a Dec. 13 speech to Oregon City's elected school officials, OCEA President and Redland Elementary teacher Brenda Roland characterized the "Workload Relief and Staffing Crisis" survey results as a "cry for help" from teachers. Roland said school board members have frequently said they care about school staff, and encouraged those elected officials to translate that caring into action before more teachers resign.

"Teachers are struggling, and if we continue at this pace, I'm extremely concerned with the end result," Roland said. "Oregon City School District cannot afford to lose our highly qualified, dedicated and experienced workforce."

Roland said a survey of classified staff in Oregon City would probably yield similar results.

Statewide issues

Shortly after school started last fall, teachers across the state of Oregon were already burning out.

A return from distance learning coupled with staffing shortages in many school districts meant educators had higher workloads and more stress.

In a handful of districts, including Portland, Eugene, Beaverton and Hillsboro, more than 80% of teachers said they couldn't get all their work done during regular hours.

"In far too many districts, staff are keeping schools functioning through long working hours and sheer will," Oregon Education Association leaders noted in a January report called "Education at a Breaking Point."

The report used surveys compiled from several districts. It mirrored results from a national survey of educators who said they planned to leave the profession sooner than expected due to pandemic-related stress.

Reed Scott-Schwalbach is president of the Oregon Education Association. Scott-Schwalbach said OEA hasn't updated its surveys since the winter report, but across the state, the union is seeing teachers struggling to earn a living wage in places like Marion and Deschutes counties. Elsewhere, unions are advocating for smaller class sizes to reduce their workloads, while administrators in districts like Newberg have left over controversial decisions and political differences with elected leadership.

"In so many districts, people were saying, 'I'm stressed, I've reached a point where I have to leave this profession,'" Schwalbach noted.

North Clackamas sees increased departures

The massive turnover OEA's report warned of hasn't taken shape in every district, but some are reporting more retirements and resignations, following the 2021-22 school year. The North Clackamas School District also reported a sharp uptick in employee turnover.

In North Clackamas School District, the number of staff retiring this year, 31, is more than double the 14 teachers who retired in 2018-19. Resignations and relocations are also up, from 49 in 2018-19 to 54 and rising so far this summer.

The reasons for the departures vary, but most boil down to work stress or better pay offered elsewhere.

In Portland, the teachers union reported last fall that nearly half its members said they planned to retire early or leave the profession. Teachers said staffing shortages took a toll.

Elizabeth Israel-Davis is a teacher on special assignment, or TOSA. TOSAs are specialists, who often work with other teachers to help students who are struggling in certain subjects. For Israel-Davis, that means deploying reading intervention strategies and working to help children with dyslexia.

But during the 2021-22 school year, she spent roughly half her time shuffling around to fill in as a substitute teacher at different campuses as Portland Public Schools reported a lingering shortage of substitute teachers and educators. It was worst in winter, during the height of COVID-19 omicron outbreaks.

"At one point, we were directed to sub every day in January and February," Israel-Davis recalled. "Often we didn't know where we were going to be until the morning of. Sometimes teachers would leave lesson plans, but other times there were emergency sub plans. You just had to punt and do the best you could. It felt like we were an expendable workforce. They would just send us in to do what nobody else wanted or could do."

She contemplated leaving the profession. Instead, she left the district, taking a job elsewhere.

Overall, Portland Public Schools is reporting less vacancies than three years prior, but in Clackamas County, Lake Oswego teachers union leader Kelly Fitzsimmons was bracing for an uptick in resignations.

"Our retirement numbers were similar to the past three years, but I am fairly certain our resignation numbers are higher than normal based on the conversations I've had with our members and individuals that I know have chosen to resign well before they're due for retirement," Fitzsimmons said.

"Education has always been a difficult career, but the conditions of the pandemic have made it a much more difficult job over the past two years," Fitzsimmons added. "Students need more from their teachers at this time, both academically and emotionally, and there simply isn't enough time in the day for most educators to meet these increasing needs."

In Central Oregon, the issues impacting teachers weren't salary or staffing issues, but COVID rules, pointing to an urban-rural divide. Crook County School District logged 169 religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate for educators at the start of the 2021-22 school year, noting it likely would have lost a big chunk of its workforce without the exemptions.

Educators look for solutions amid persistent burnout

Scott-Scwalbach of OEA said in some cases, the data published in early 2022 was enough to drive changes in labor contracts or working conditions at some schools.

"We were able to sit down with districts and say, 'look, this is not just anecdotal evidence, we have hard data that says people are (considering leaving),'" Schwalbach said, noting districts that collaborate with their unions to find solutions usually see less turnover.

Even if teachers aren't leaving immediately the survey results from several unions point to growing dissatisfaction and increased burnout among Oregon's education workforce. Teachers and union leaders say Oregon legislators could fix that by devoting more funds per student, to address increased needs and keep staffing levels stable.

Oregon ranks 20th in the nation for spending per student, according to data released by the National Education Association in April.

Educators also say scheduling could alleviate workload stress.

Israel-Davis, the Portland teacher, said many districts around the country have a weekly early dismissal or late start schedule to give teachers time to plan and collaborate.

"That could go really far in helping everybody deal," she said. "When you can plan and collaborate, you're not constantly reacting."

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