The 2020-21 school year was a challenging one for teachers, who had to quickly learn to navigate multiple changes, health concerns, and increased responsibilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent study found that the number of hours that teachers worked during the first full pandemic school year was significantly greater than their previous work hours and also greater than the hours worked by employees in other occupations during the same time frame.
Given these difficulties, concerns about retaining teachers for the 2021-22 school year were not unfounded. In August 2021, less than two weeks before the beginning of the school year, North Dakota reported 393 still unfilled teacher vacancies, about 5% of their teacher workforce. Nearby Billings, Montana, appeared to avoid this problem by offering signing and retention bonuses for certain positions. Billings Public Schools offered teachers a $2,000 one-time bonus, and secured a three-year contract with their teachers' association that included competitive salary raises.
In this edition of the District Trendline, we look at the incentives that 148 large school districts across the United States used to attract and retain teachers during the Fall of 2021.
About 40% of the districts in our sample of 148 offered some kind of monetary bonus to incentivize teachers to return to teach during the 2021-22 school year. These bonuses ranged from $350 in Cumberland County Schools (NC) to up to $5,000 in Jefferson County Public Schools (KY).
In order to ensure stable staffing throughout the school year, some of the districts offering the largest bonuses paid them in installments. Jefferson County Public Schools, for example, offered half of this stipend in September, a fourth in late November, and the final fourth at the end of May. Similarly, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools offers a $2,400 total bonus, of which $1,000 was received in October, another $700 delivered if the teacher was still employed by December, and the final $700 if still employed in May.
Other districts are looking to incentivize the additional services they know teachers will likely be requested to perform during this second pandemic year. Detroit Public Schools Community District (MI) is offering $500 per quarter to teachers "who simultaneously provide blended, in-person, face-to-face, and virtual teaching services to students" while Alpine School District (UT) offers their teachers in virtual settings $300 per student above a class size limit of 30 students.
Howard County Public School System (MD) offers "(t)eachers who freely and willingly volunteer to substitute during their daily preparation time" a compensation of $55 per preparation period, approximately 60% higher than the equivalent maximum hourly rate that the district pays to substitute teachers.
Leave and other health related incentives
Teachers' concern for their own health has often been cited as a reason why they might not want to continue teaching. Some districts have sought to ease these health concerns by guaranteeing special COVID-related leave that will not deplete teachers' leave accruals. Still, the percentage of districts in our sample that do so has not changed significantly between the onset of the pandemic and now. In January 2021 we found that 59% of the districts sampled had COVID-related leave policies, in addition to what teachers can take under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This time around, we found a comparable number of districts (52%) offer COVID-related leave.
Out of our 148-district sample, 111 require teachers to wear masks. At the start of the school year, 52 districts had set deadlines for all personnel to be vaccinated by a certain date. However, only seven of those districts offered a vaccination bonus. While vaccination bonuses were not too prevalent, they could be quite substantial. Two districts in our sample, Oklahoma City (OK) and Dekalb County Schools (GA) offered their teachers $1,000 for getting vaccinated. On the other end stands Boston Public Schools (MA), offering a $25 gift certificate per shot to vaccinated teachers.
Conclusions and recommendations
Compensation is a powerful teacher retention tool and its use for attracting and retaining teachers in a challenging school year are commendable. However, not everything has a price. For example, teachers who are struggling this school year have indicated that more time to plan would make a positive difference in their wellbeing, and therefore a small amount of extra compensation for them to sub during their planning time is not a long-term solution for teacher retention. Building up a substitute pool is likely to be a more effective strategy than compensation when it comes to easing teacher stress.
Financial incentives also need to have a realistic alignment with districts' budgets. A report by The 74 indicated that if, as stated above, Dekalb County Schools proceeds to pay the agreed $1,000 vaccination bonus to all of their employees, it would cost the district $15 million.
Given the pervasive substitute and support staff shortages, districts need to evaluate whether these incentives really have an effect on retention and if it is the best use of their monetary resources.