3 reasons COVID could drive principals from their schools

Principals report high levels of stress over the health of staff and students
By: | August 21, 2020
A key reason K-12 principals say they may leave their jobs is the political environment that swirled up around the COVIS pandemic. (GettyImages/RichVintage)A key reason K-12 principals say they may leave their jobs is the political environment that swirled up around the COVIS pandemic. (GettyImages/RichVintage)

Nearly half the principals who participated in a survey this month said they may leave their positions because of the working conditions, including the political environment and health concerns, during the COVID pandemic.

This figure is split between principals who said COVID had accelerated their plans to resign and those who said the pandemic was the first time they’d considered leaving, according to the survey conducted from Aug. 14–19 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, also known as NASSP.

These numbers were consistent across elementary, middle, and high school levels, and urban, suburban, and rural communities, the organization says. About 17% said they could leave in one to two years, while another 5% have decided to leave as soon as possible.

“These new findings on principals’ departure plans should frighten the entire education community,” JoAnn Bartoletti, the association’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “Our schools are already strained by principal turnover, and the school conditions policymakers have created will only intensify that turnover.

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However, about 9% of the principals reported a finding new sense of commitment to their posts during the COVID pandemic. These principals said their schools and staff needed strong leadership and that they want to remain involved in the vital schools play in the community.

Why principals may leave

The first reason the respondents gave for potentially leaving is the political environment that swirled up around the pandemic. Principals surveyed cited a lack of leadership, a lack of planning and the politicization of teacher and student health, NASSP said.

The principals said policy and guidance around COVID change “almost daily,” which makes planning for the school year impossible and has caused frustrated parents to turn their ire toward school leaders.

Concerns about staff and students getting sick with COVID if schools reopen in-person is the second major reason principals gave for thinking about resigning. Some respondents called plans to reopen schools “contrary to science” and “morally unsustainable.”

“I feel that we are not in a position to say that anyone is safe,” one respondent said.

“I love education and working with kids, but the pressure I feel to keep everyone safe and the perspective some teachers have that I am responsible to keep them safe is overwhelming,” said another.

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This stress is creating mental strain and has damaged relationships between school staff.

Finally, principals said they are their assistant principals were not getting enough support from central office leaders.

A report issued by NASSP in May found that nearly 1 in 5 principals leave each year due to inadequate preparation and professional development, poor working conditions, insufficient salaries, lack of decision-making authority, and high-stakes accountability policies.

DA’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on K-12.