Vaccine mandate drives contention in schools, but few educators are leaving their jobs over it

Target 3

Pandemic puts pressure on years-long education employee shortage

CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WCIA)– The requirement for teachers and school staff to be vaccinated for COVID-19 continues to be a controversial topic, and it has been since Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the mandate on Aug. 26.

The most vocal group amplified in articles and on social media appeared to be educators who are against the mandate, some have spoken up and at least one teacher was fired.

But when it comes down to the numbers, how much has the vaccine requirement actually affected the staffing levels in Illinois schools?

WCIA’s Target 3 investigative team spent some time poring through school district termination, resignation and retirement data.

We found resignations at a couple of our largest Central Illinois school districts are definitely up following the governor’s announcement, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Meet Kadence Koen.

“My mom calls me a round peg in a round hole and I love teaching,” Koen shared in an interview with Target 3.

After 12 years teaching at Springfield Southeast High School, Koen said she was put on unpaid leave by the school district for not complying with the state’s vaccine mandate for educators.

“That made me nervous and made me decide that was going to be the line in the sand, that I would do the best I could to get them to stop with mandates,” she explained.

Koen has been vaccinated. She got her shots before the mandate was even announced, but she refused to submit proof.

Target 3 investigators interview Kadence Koen at her home.

“Because no one would listen,” Koen said when asked why.

“…I have had multiple teachers that do teach in the building that I teach in reach out to me in support of what I’m doing and thanking me because they were not in a financial situation to be able to do what I did.”

In Springfield, the number of school staff that resigned or were fired between the vaccine mandate announcement on Aug. 26th and Oct. 1 was more than double the number from 2020.

Target 3 calculations showed 29 staff members resigned or were terminated in that time period in 2021, as opposed to the about 12 that left during the same time last year. The number was approximately 24 in 2019.

In Champaign, the numbers tell a similar story. Approximately 54 school staff quit or were let go, compared to about 22 in 2020 and 31 in 2019.

Over in Decatur, things didn’t change much year over year. (Aug. 26-Oct. 1, 2021 = approx. 9, Aug. 26-Oct. 1, 2020 = approx. 6, Aug. 26-Oct. 1, 2019 = approx. 7)

However, these stats didn’t come with an explanation so we reached out to the school districts to clarify how many staff members actually left as a direct result of the mandate.

In an email response, the Champaign school district’s chief communications officer Stacey Moore said, “While we are not going to speculate, we do not believe that the vast majority of resignations were related to the governor’s mandate.”

In Decatur, chief communications officer Denise Swarthout responded, “We have not terminated any employees because of the mandate, and we have zero anecdotal or written reasons given in resignation letters that the employee resigned as a result of the mandate.”

Springfield schools’ coordinator of public relations and marketing, Bree Hankins said, “We are not aware of any resignations associated with the mandate. In many cases, resignations resulted in those staff members taking other positions within our District. Other resignations and staff shortages may also be attributed to the current job market.”

(We did not include resignations where an employee accepted another position in the district in this report.)

We do know of at least one teacher let go by the Springfield school district for failure to comply with the vaccine mandate. Franklin Middle School band teacher Kingsley Keys was fired at a Board of Education meeting on Nov. 15.

The Illinois Education Association is the largest union in the state, representing more than 135,000 educators.

“We get a pretty good idea of what’s happening on the ground in our schools,” shared IEA spokesperson Bridget Shanahan.

“We know that in nearly every area of the state a majority of our members are vaccinated.”

She estimated 80%.

“We’re actually in an education employee shortage that has been happening since before COVID,” Shanahan shared.

“…In 2017, we had 2,000 unfilled positions and in 2021, we have 4,000 (4,100)…So we are sorely lacking in the number of adults in our schools which is impacting the education that our students can receive.”

Shanahan said the pandemic has driven even more teachers and staff out of schools, but she said it’s for reasons far beyond and before the vaccine mandate.

In both Urbana and Danville school districts, about twice as many people resigned or were terminated between Aug. 26 and Oct. 1, 2020, as the first month of 2021. It’s the opposite of what we saw in data from Champaign and Springfield schools.

Angi Franklin, Urbana’s Asst. Superintendent of Human Resources said, “We have been so fortunate to not have the mask mandate/vaccine or testing mandate affect our employment numbers. The resignations always come in with a specific reason for resigning and we have exit interviews with staff.  This hasn’t come up once.”

Danville Superintendent Alicia Geddis said, “We don’t have any terminations as a result of implementing the Governor’s Executive Order mandate.”

A snapshot of an Excel spreadsheet shows resignations, terminations and retirements at the largest school districts in Central Illinois from 8/26 – 10/1/21, 8/26 – 10/1/20, and 8/26 – 10/1/19. It was compiled from data obtained in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Not to mention, a poll of more than 1,300 IEA members — a year ago — showed one-third of educators were considering leaving the profession because of pandemic pressures.

When asked if the union knew how many of those members ended up leaving, Shanahan responded, “No, we don’t know that, but I can only imagine that it’s increased.”

A couple of weeks ago, Danville combined a few elementary classes. John Hart, the assistant superintendent of elementary schools said it was, in large part, a response to the district’s teacher shortage.

And with the exception of Sangamon County, the number of unfilled education positions has multiplied across the largest counties in our viewing area since 2017.

Data pulled directly from https://www.isbe.net/unfilledpositions.

“Just take a second to put yourself in the shoes of these folks,” Shanahan said.

“We’re seeing a lot of educators take leaves of absences because it’s just become too much. They’re burnt out, it’s too stressful and they need a break. And when that happens, then that means their colleague, then has to pick up the slack which only, in turn, leads that colleague to feel burned out and maybe need a break themselves, so it’s really a vicious cycle.”

As for Koen, she decided to submit her vaccine card after all. This was her first full week back at school.

“Through remediation, we reached the point that I had until Nov. 10 to produce my vaccination card or start testing, or they were going to terminate me and I wasn’t willing to let that happen. I can’t imagine life not being a teacher,” she explained. “And I can’t imagine my students’ lives that I’ve touched in the past, not having had been there for them.”

Shanahan said without change, the education employee shortage will only get worse. The solution is making teaching a more attractive job, she added.

And there has been some progress, according to Shanahan.

  • In 2019, Gov. Pritzker signed the Minimum Salary Act. It set a base level for teacher pay in the state to increase annually, to $40,000/year by 2024.
  • This year, state lawmakers passed the COVID School Employee Benefit & Wage Protection Bill. It would provide separate paid leave for COVID-related absences, among other things. The bill awaits a signature from the governor.

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