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Research Questions

  1. What are the main reasons why public school teachers have quit?
  2. What impact does stress have on public school teachers' decisions to leave?
  3. To what degree is the COVID-19 pandemic a factor in public school teachers' decisions to leave?

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has added more stress to an already high-stress profession: American public school teacher. The authors of this report share the results of a new survey of nearly 1,000 former public school teachers and reveal how important stress has been—even more so than pay—to teachers' decisions to leave the profession.

In this report, the authors attempt to understand what is and is not normal about teacher attrition during this highly abnormal pandemic era. They build a profile of teacher leavers, both before and during the pandemic, and examine how the pandemic has influenced teachers' exits. They contextualize the pandemic-related findings by examining pre-pandemic stressors in the teaching profession and conclude by examining what former public school teachers reported doing after leaving their public school positions. The authors then discuss the implications of these findings for public school teaching and offer recommendations for educators, researchers, and policymakers.

Key Findings

  • Almost half of the public school teachers who voluntarily stopped teaching in public schools after March 2020 and before their scheduled retirement left because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • At least for some teachers, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have exacerbated what were high stress levels pre-pandemic by forcing teachers to, among other things, work more hours and navigate an unfamiliar remote environment, often with frequent technical problems.
  • Many early leavers could be lured back to public school teaching. Over half of the teachers who voluntarily left the profession early primarily because of the pandemic indicated that they would be somewhat or definitely willing to return to public school teaching once most staff and students are vaccinated. Slightly fewer of those would return if there was only regular testing of staff and students for COVID-19.
  • Stress was the most common reason for leaving public school teaching early—almost twice as common as insufficient pay. This is corroborated by the fact that a majority of early leavers went on to take jobs with either less or around equal pay, and three in ten went on to work at a job with no health insurance or retirement benefits.
  • Of the teacher leavers who are currently employed, about three in ten hold a noneducation-related job, another three in ten have a different type of teaching position, and the rest are in nonteaching education jobs. For those teacher leavers who are still in education, more flexibility was the most common attribute that attracted them to their new job.


  • Involve teachers in developing districts' responses to reducing teacher stress. COVID-19 could open a policy window through which to reconsider the job responsibilities of the typical public school teacher.
  • Districts and state departments of education should consider ways to increase flexibility in teachers' schedules during the COVID-19 pandemic and in the long term. Although only a minority of public school teachers might prefer remote schooling, it could still be attractive to a subset of teachers who wish for more flexibility in their schedule.
  • While waiting for COVID-19 vaccines to roll out, schools should partner with a third party to start regularly testing students and staff as a means to help keep schools open. The federal government should fund COVID-19 testing systems in schools (via qualified third parties) and also mandate that insurers cover the costs of both symptomatic and asymptomatic COVID-19 testing. Schools that have been testing students this school year (which have been primarily private, but also some public) consistently say the chief benefits are reducing anxiety, establishing whether rates of positivity in the school population are low, and helping to contain spread via asymptomatic cases.

Research conducted by

This research was funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) and conducted by RAND Education and Labor.

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