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The Pandemic May Drive Principals to Quit

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By Lesli A. Maxwell and Denisa R. Superville

The physical and emotional strain of the coronavirus pandemic is taking a steep toll on America's principals, with a large share saying they are speeding up plans to retire or otherwise leave the profession.

Forty-five percent of principals said that pandemic conditions are prompting them to leave the job sooner than they had previously planned, according to a new survey from the National Association of Secondary School Principals. A slightly larger share—46 percent—said the pandemic has not changed their plans to stay in or leave the profession. 

The prospect of a sudden and widespread turnover in school leadership would deal a tough blow to an education system already in upheaval because of the pandemic. It would also exacerbate an already high level of churn in the profession.

A report from NASSP and the Learning Policy Institute earlier this year found that nearly 1 in 5 principals turn over each year, largely driven by challenging working conditions, too little support and professional development, among other factors. 

Within the group of leaders who said they are now weighing leaving the profession, 22.8 percent said the working conditions in the pandemic sparked their thoughts of leaving the job for the first time. Slightly more than 17 percent said the pandemic has moved up their plans to leave within 1 to 2 years. And 5 percent said they would leave the job as soon as possible. Those findings were consistent across leaders in elementary, middle, and high schools.

The specific reasons respondents said they were planning to leave included a lack of leadership and support for carrying out their responsibilities in such chaotic conditions and health concerns for themselves, their staff, and their students.

School leaders are worried about their health, the health of their spouses, who may have underlying conditions, and the constantly changing guidelines and policies are adding more stress to an already stressful job, said Ernest Logan, president of the American Federation of School Administrators, a national union for principals. Some are worried about liability and what happens if they will be held personally responsible if a student or employee gets sick. 

"There is enough stress running a school every day, " Logan said. "What you are starting to see is that people who would have worked until their 60s are saying, 'You know what, I don't need this aggravation.' "

A Principal Decides to Leave

Nadia Lopez, 43, made the choice to leave in July. Lopez had been the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a public middle school in the Brownsville community in Brooklyn, since its founding in 2010.

She—and her school, situated in one of the poorest communities in New York City—became famous nearly overnight in 2015 when a student, Vidal Chastanet, was photographed and interviewed by Brandon Stanton, the creator of Humans of New York. Vidal, then 13, told Stanton that Lopez had been the greatest influence in his life.

Just before that story went viral, Lopez was ready to quit. The stress of the job had taken a toll on her physical health. The response to Vidal's interview and the outpouring of public support for her mission-driven leadership of the school kept Lopez from leaving. She was invited to the White House. She was featured in national magazines. But the pressure and stress didn't diminish.

"It was the unfortunate circumstance of fame where people were looking to me for all the answers," Lopez said in an interview. " 'If you leave, what will happen to all these kids?' I stayed because I didn't want that to be the story. I stayed because I didn't want the kids to think I was abandoning them."

Fast forward to May 2019. Still running the school, Lopez had developed a serious kidney disorder.

She went on medical leave and had major surgery several months later. An interim principal was leading the school during the summer, fall, and winter of 2019-20. Then the pandemic hit, the mayor ordered all schools to close, and principals and teachers had to quickly start up remote learning.

"I thought about my team, who were fearful. The one thing I could do is jump in and support them, to build a virtual learning program out of nothing," Lopez said.

At the same time, virus-related illness and death were ravaging New York, and the Brownsville community was hit hard, she said. "We had a teacher whose grandfather died from COVID in her house minutes before she was supposed to teach," Lopez said.

Lopez began mobilizing mental health and other supports for teachers and students and their families. She started a night school for 20 students who couldn't get online during the regular school day. Soon, she was back to working 12 hours a day, skipping meals, and barely stopping to use the bathroom.

Her doctor told her she needed to remove the work stress. She resolved to get through the end of the school year. Then, she said, she would resign. She stepped down last month.

"I'm a human being with a family," Lopez said. "At the end of the day, if I died in this position, who would take care of them?  It really came down to that." 

High Turnover Is Already a Problem

In its survey of 1,020 principals in mid-August, NASSP also asked what conditions specifically were pushing school leaders to rethink their time in the job. Many cited the chaos of operating their schools in a pandemic amid confusing, often contradictory guidance that is constantly shifting.

The conditions, said one principal, "make it near impossible to plan for the year. Parents and community members are frustrated and blame us for the constant changes being communicated."

Others said the responsibility of making decisions that can put their staff members at risk of illness or death weigh heavily.

The unprecedented leadership challenges that COVID-19 presents may further erode a talent pool that's already plagued with churn. Nearly half of new principals leave their schools after three years. Almost 20 percent leave every year.

And though they may move on to another school, many leave the job entirely, according to recent research on a large set of school leaders in Texas.  When principal talent moves on, or is lost altogether, it's a blow to districts and states that invest millions of dollars to prepare and hire new leaders every year.

An exodus of experienced principals with so much institutional knowledge and connections and the loss of possible mentors for a younger generation of school leaders are major concerns. Older principals often run district professional development and have spent years building up trust in the community, getting to know parents, students, local powerbrokers and others who help with everything from budgets to donations. All of that could be disappear when older principals leave in droves, Logan said.

"You can't regain that," he said. "It takes a long time to build that up."

So how can districts and decision-makers move quickly to stem the tide? 

Remove the politics. Include principals in major decisionmaking about operations. Be guided by data. Be honest and clear about plans and give principals the resources they need to make those plans work, whether it's to buy PPE for staff or adequate supply of cleaning materials, Logan said.

"Don't do that, and they'll be out the door."

Image credit: E+/Getty

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