Santa Fe school officials will play a waiting game for the next several weeks, hoping the effects of a difficult school year and the ripple effects of the coronavirus pandemic won’t do significant damage to staffing levels — particularly in the teaching ranks.
The head of Santa Fe Public Schools’ human resources department, Howard Oechsner, said the district has received notice of resignation or retirement from more than 200 staff members, including 70 teachers, but added those numbers aren’t a major change from the past few years.
The district will know more when contracts renew July 1, Oechsner said.
“I do anticipate there may be a few more that trickle in, but I don’t expect a flood of them,” he added.
It’s a tenuous time for district officials throughout the state as they survey staffing levels against the backdrop of a pandemic that was exacting and exhausting. Superintendents have long worried about a looming teacher shortage, and some have expressed concern about what the pandemic might do to the teaching ranks following a year when many districts, including Santa Fe’s, toggled between remote and in-person learning.
Grace Mayer, a Milagro Middle School art teacher and president of the local National Education Association, said she wouldn’t be surprised if the number of educators leaving the profession jumps at the end of June.
“Well, I think it’s been an exhausting year,” she said. “And I think people are sort of feeling the effects of having a roller coaster of emotions throughout the pandemic.”
Mayer and other teachers have spent the last two school years learning online platforms in rapid time and modifying lesson plans to accommodate online and in-person learning.
Feedback from the community, she said, has been mixed. At first, support for teachers seemed widespread, but later diminished.
“I also think that the [Public Education Department] and the governor and a lot of legislators were concerned about our health and safety,” Mayer said. “But I don’t think they were really aware of the pressure and the level of anxiety and loss and grief that we’re all dealing with.”
She acknowledged that among Santa Fe’s aging teacher workforce, those who have been toying with retiring in a few years may have chosen to take the leap after the pandemic.
“This year was like five years in one,” Mayer said.
For some teachers who’ve made the decision to leave, the decision to retire was complex.
Marilyn Barnes, a well-respected Santa Fe High choir teacher, said she is departing after 14 years at the school, where she built a successful program from the ground up.
She acknowledged that while her reasons for departing go beyond the stresses of the pandemic, the back-and-forth nature of teaching online and in person was sometimes a struggle.
“Maybe it was just the fates,” Barnes said. “[Retiring] would have been a lot harder if we won a state competition or something this year. This year was about survival.”
Barnes, who said she and her husband are starting a production company, said she is concerned about young teachers, who must deal with the higher cost of living in the city.
“I’ve done so much recruiting in Santa Fe for young teachers, and it just doesn’t feel right,” Barnes said. “We have to do something to make life better for these very important people, like teachers.”
Santa Fe Public Schools, like most other districts in the state, is hunting for replacements, both in the classroom and with other staff positions, throughout the summer. Oechsner said the district will conduct exit surveys to determine why employees decided to leave. Fifty of the 70 teachers who are departing resigned; the others retired.
Mayer said she is worried about next year as experienced teachers leave and the state moves toward accelerated learning and more assessments to get students back on track after the pandemic.
“Nobody is asking the educators what was successful and what worked,” she said. “Educators aren’t being heard.”
As of Wednesday, the Public Education Department reported a loss of more than 1,200 teachers statewide — or 4.8 percent of the public teaching workforce — this year. That’s an improvement from the nearly 1,700 who left after the 2019-20 school year.
A spokeswoman said data on other school staff resignations and retirements aren’t tracked year to year, so the true scope of loss at schools is not known.
At the state level, the Legislature approved salary increases for public employees, including teachers, and the education department is instituting incentives to bolster the state’s teaching workforce — offering programs that pay off student loans for those pursuing jobs in the profession or helping to cover licensing costs for educators already at schools.
But whether that will be enough to adequately fill the gaps may not be known for some time.
Without a school year to look forward to, Barnes said she’ll turn her attention to a future outside the classroom.
“We’ve done many wonderful things, and I just thought it would be good to get my hands into something else before I’m really old,” she said.
She looks forward to the freedom a different schedule may bring.
“As a teacher, it’s not like you can say, ‘We want to go see our daughter for two weeks in October,’ because you’re working,” she said. “But now I can plan what I’m going to do now around our schedule.”