The Teacher Workforce and the Impact of COVID-19: A Q&A with Dr. Olivia Chi

Olivia ChiAs it started to become clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would have an impact across multiple schools years, concerns regarding what some called a “mass exodus” of teachers began to rise. Despite these fears, a recent report by Drs. Olivia Chi and Andrew Bacher-Hicks that explores the impact of COVID-19 on the teacher workforce of Massachusetts shows that it was actually fairly stable throughout the first year of the pandemic.

We sat down with Chi to learn more about “COVID-19 and the Composition of the Massachusetts Teacher Workforce” and what their findings may mean for the future of the teacher workforce in Massachusetts. Chi and Bacher-Hicks will present at the 2022 BU Wheelock Forum: Examining How Teacher Workforce Policies Shape an Equity-Centered Education on March 31.

BU Wheelock: Your new report explores the state of the teacher workforce in Massachusetts. What were your main findings?

Olivia Chi: We took a first look at patterns in teacher turnover and teacher hiring in Massachusetts during the first year of the pandemic using data from the 2020–2021 school year. We found that, overall, teacher turnover in Massachusetts has remained stable over the last five years, including from spring 2020 into fall 2020, the first school year transition during the pandemic. We found that the initial fears about a mass exodus of teachers didn’t come true.

However, we also uncovered some other important patterns. For instance, while there was stability at the state level, some districts did experience substantially higher turnover than others in 2020, particularly in the western part of the state.

We also found that, compared to prior years, turnover decreased among early career teachers, Black and Hispanic/Latinx teachers, and teachers in schools serving high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students. These groups with decreases in turnover were the teachers and schools with the highest historical rates of turnover.  And we found that racial and ethnic diversity among newly hired teachers increased in recent years, and this trend continued into the fall 2020.

BU Wheelock: What contributed to this increase in racial and ethnic diversity among newly hired teachers?

Chi: It seemed to follow an existing trend that has been going on for the past five or six years, at least. One potential contributing factor is the offering of emergency teaching licenses. When the pandemic first started, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education created the emergency teacher license in response to the unique pandemic-related challenges that prevented many individuals from fulfilling the requirements for traditional teacher licenses. To qualify for the emergency teacher license, individuals only needed a bachelor’s degree and “sound moral character.”

We found that newly hired teachers holding an emergency license in 2020–2021 were substantially more likely to be Black or Hispanic/Latinx than other newly hired teachers. In the upcoming months, we’ll be more closely examining the role of emergency licensure on the composition of the teacher workforce in partnership with Massachusetts DESE.

BU Wheelock: What are some of the other important takeaways?

Chi: It’s important to keep in mind that our findings only present trends for the teacher workforce through fall 2020. It’s still too early to tell how the workforce responded as the pandemic continued into the 2021–2022 school year. We’ll be looking into this in future work, as well.

BU Wheelock: What else are you working on right now?

Chi: I have a few other projects in the works. For example, I’m working on a study that assesses whether a teacher screening tool, which is designed to be used during the teacher hiring process, is predictive of applicants’ on-the-job performance. I’m also gearing up for an evaluation of a virtual teacher coaching model, as well as an evaluation of a school leader pipeline initiative.