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Is COVID-19 spiking teacher retirements in New York State?

"Our teaching population is aging"
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Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 04, 2020

KENMORE, N.Y. (WKBW) — “Our teaching population is aging,” explained Peter Stuhmiller, president of the Kenmore Teachers Association.

Teacher retirements have been on the rise across the state and it could be tied to COVID-19.

The New York State Teachers’ Retirement System (NYSTRS) is reporting a 20-percent jump. But this is adding to a current teacher shortage.

“And they're trying to juggle, to what extent, do I want to end my career before I’m really mentally ready, but I’m afraid for my life,” reflected Stuhmiller.

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Peter Stuhmiller, president, Kenmore Teachers Association.

Stuhmiller calls it the “perfect storm” — an aging population of teachers with growing health issues.

“If they end up being one of the 12,000 reported positive cases of [COVID-19] in Erie County, they're looking at seriously aggravated medical circumstances,” Stuhmiller remarked.

Before COVID-19 there was a scramble to hire 180,000 teachers statewide, with many districts dealing with a shortage.

“The Charles Dickens - ‘these are the best of times and the worst of times’ - is really a good way to describe what's going on in education right now,” stated Dr. Wendy Paterson, dean of the School of Education Buffalo State College.

Paterson said she's been keeping a close watch on the retirements amid COVID-19 as the college works to recruit and educate future teachers.

Teaching shortages are highest in urban and rural schools.

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Dr. Wendy Paterson, dean, School of Education SUNY Buffalo State.

“The rural schools are going to have a really difficult time because a lot of them don't have student teachers or they're not close enough to a college to connect,” described Paterson.

Paterson says there is a shortage of math, science and foreign language teachers.

“We’re expecting that with this particular retirement crisis, that we will start seeing from everyone, but I suspect you're going to hit the large populations in the city and distributed populations in the rural areas,” Paterson said.

“It’s a struggle for school districts to try to anticipate more vacancies than maybe they would have had during a regular school year,” Stuhmiller explained.

Stuhmiller said he had approximately 29 teachers retire over the past year and believes some of those retirements were directly related fears of COVID-19.

Buffalo State has about 80-student teachers who will be assisting in area schools for both in-classroom and remote learning this fall.

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SUNY Buffalo State Campus.

But Paterson explained student teaching will be difficult with COVID-19 restrictions limiting school openings.

“We also have a chain reaction right now,” Paterson declared.

Buffalo State has a ‘pipeline’ program for teachers aids and assistance in the city of Buffalo who want to earn their teaching certification.

Paterson said enrollment is “strong” this semester despite the pandemic.

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Outside Buffalo State campus.

“We are very please to see that people aren’t afraid to teach. One of the things that we were glad to hear from all of this was a renewed respect for what teachers do,” said Paterson.

The college is also teaming with Erie 1 BOCES to offer an on-line, ‘best practices in remote teaching’ explaining how to set up a community in a remote environment. Paterson said it is being offered to student teachers this semester free-of-charge.

The New York State Teachers’ Retirement System supplied these numbers from the past three years.

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Inside a WNY classroom.

“The majority of teachers reporting to NYSTRS choose a July 1 date of retirement. Because you can file for retirement up to 90 days before your retirement date, our peak retirement season is April, May and June.”

Here is how the number of retirement applications received during this peak period in 2020 compared to the two previous years:

2018: 4,854
2019: 4,970
2020: 5,088

NYSTRS noted teachers can retire on any date they choose; they don’t have to select July 1. Here is how July and August retirements in 2018, 2019 and 2020 compare:

Month 2018 2019 2020
July 340 319 394

August 288 259 572

Total 628 578 966

The state Teachers' Retirement System tells 7 Eyewitness News the retirements could be even higher once they count any filings mailed in late August.