Harker Heights Elementary School

At Harker Heights Elementary School in December, first-graders work on letters to Santa while classroom aides manage the class

A total of 1,061 employees — 39% of which were teachers — left the Killeen Independent School District since March 2020, the month Gov. Greg Abbott temporarily forced the closure of all Texas school districts.

A November survey by Horace Mann Educators Corporation, a financial services company, found 27% of K-12 educators are considering leaving the profession or taking a leave of absence due to the threat of COVID-19. Read the full report here: https://bit.ly/3jNOnuo.

Killeen Educators Association president Rick Beaulé and Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) spokesman Clay Robison say more resignations will come if Abbott continues to fail to prioritize the health and safety of education professionals.

DATA

On Jan. 29, TSTA’s Jason Wylie received a data set, via email, from paralegal Angela Inman of the Killeen Independent School District’s superintendent’s office in response to his Jan. 14 public information request for the “names, positions, and work sites of all those KISD employees who resigned and/or retired from March 1, 2020, to January 13, 2021.”

A similar request was made by the Herald on Wednesday, but was unable to be fulfilled by deadline Friday. TSTA member and KEA president Beaulé shared the data set with the Herald upon request Thursday.

Of the 1,061 KISD employees who separated from the district during this time period, according to the data, 332 were teacher resignations, and 82 were teacher retirements.

The district lost 169 aides, according to the data, 88 custodians, 60 school nutrition workers, 44 bus drivers, 24 secretaries, 16 crossing guards, 12 counselors, nine clerks, seven principals, six nurses, six librarians and five assistant principals during the same time period. To view the data set in its entirety visit kdhnews.com.

“I think it’s (the resignation rate) indicative of the stress that educators are under during the time of COVID,” Beaulé said Friday. “There are penalties which could be fairly substantial for teachers, especially those who leave under contract, so for a teacher to feel that it’s the safer and better choice to leave is pretty revealing.”

Of the 1,060 employees who parted ways with the district between March and January, the data shows 902 opted to resign and 158 chose to retire.

KISD spokeswoman Taina Maya said she couldn’t speak to the data set Friday. The district was closed due to hazardous winter weather conditions Friday.

“KISD has taken an innovative approach to attract new employees by using relevant communication/marketing channels,” Maya wrote Friday. “I am unable to comment further until I can validate the data from the district, as it would be a disservice for you to cite inaccurate information in your story.”

The Herald verified the data set received from Beaulé is the same data set district paralegal Angela Inman emailed to TSTA’s Jason Wylie on Jan. 29.

BREAKDOWN

The district’s largest high schools had the highest employee separations by campus, according to the data. Robert M. Shoemaker High School lost 43 employees; Harker Heights had 35 employees leave; Killeen High School lost 28 staff members; and Ellison had 25 employees depart during the same time period.

At the elementary level, the following schools had 20-plus employee departures since March: Alice Douse, 21; Joseph A. Fowler, 22; Haynes, 29; Meadows, 26; Oveta Culp Hobby, 20; and Willow Springs, 21.

The only middle school to have 20-plus employees leave during the same time period was Palo Alto with 25 employee departures.

Looking at the data by grade level, elementary schools saw the largest departure of teachers. A total of 179 district elementary teachers left during the pandemic. KISD lost 21 prekindergarten teachers, 22 kindergarten teachers, 24 first-grade teachers, 26 second-grade teachers, 31 third-grade teachers, 30 fourth-grade teachers, and 25 fifth-grade teachers.

Killeen ISD has always had a higher-than-average turnover rate, when compared with the state, partially due to the influence of Fort Hood, but Beaulé said the pandemic’s influence seems to also be at play.

“The district has run higher-than-normal turnover for several years in comparison to the state average,” he said. “Some of that, obviously, is attributed to military personnel transferring in and out, but not all of it is. I think more than likely in every industry across the nation, across the planet, really, you are going to find an increase of departures as people seek to find the safest place to work in this new pandemic reality.”

The Herald requested comparative employee departure data from years prior to the pandemic on Wednesday, but the district was still working on the request as of deadline Friday.

CONDITIONS

Prioritizing safety, advocates say, would go a long way to keep education professionals in the field.

“Our members, a lot of them, are very scared,” TSTA spokesman Clay Robison said Friday. “They are concerned, they’re afraid, and rightfully so.”

Enforcement of safety guidelines — mask mandates, social distancing — would be a step in the right direction, he said.

“The TEA (Texas Education Agency) has published an encyclopedia of COVID safety guidelines, but most of them are not being enforced,” he said.

Last fall, TSTA conducted a survey requesting members to report safety violations seen on campus. More than 1,000 education professionals, representing 150 school districts including KISD, responded citing more than 6,000 individual safety violations.

“The TEA and the governor could do a better job enforcing the safety standards in the schools,” he said. “That would give some of our members more confidence. It may not totally ease their anxiety but it would help.”

The choice to go to school is a life or death decision for some. One Killeen educator, Cathy Falkner, an Ellison High School science teacher, died of complications of COVID-19 in January.

“Not only are they, those that have to go to their campus, going to school, they’re going to their campus in the middle of a health emergency, a pandemic which we are still learning a lot about including the new variants we’re told are more contagious.”

The district’s infection rate, Beaulé said, is evidence of the dangerous conditions KISD employees face.

“I calculated this morning, the percentage of KISD staff that have been infected with COVID,” he said. “It’s up to 12.4% now. That is double the Bell County rate of 5.3 when you factor in the general population. All the people in that building are at risk, so any protections that could be given to them are an important and essential part of the process.”

Late Friday evening, Beaulé received welcome news: The district was able to secure vaccines for some employees.

“KISD has obtained 320 first doses of Pfizer vaccines from the Bell County Health Department that would otherwise expire and are offering them to the Transportation Department,” he wrote on the Killeen Educators Association’s Facebook page. “We applaud the district for taking this proactive step to protect its employees.”

Robison said TSTA is pushing for the state to prioritize vaccines for all educators, as other states have done.

“About half of the states, about 25 states, have given vaccine priority to teachers,” Robison said. “Texas is one of the states that have not. We want Texas to give all school employees vaccine priority. Other states have; Governor Abbott could.”

Compounding an already difficult situation, virtual learning is adding stress on educators who are now tasked with a double workload of in-person and virtual lesson plans, he said.

The pressure of conducting in-person STAAR tests during a pandemic doesn’t make the situation any better, Beaulé said.

“There’s a lot of talking about STAAR and TEA wanting to find out where kids are at,” Beaulé said. “But you don’t check for damage when you’re in the middle of a tornado.”

The health and safety of school employees should be a top priority, Robison said.

“We hear, ‘The kids have to keep up with their education,’” he said. “Well, they do, and there will be time to do that, but there’s not going to be time for anybody who dies of COVID. So health and safety still have to take priority until we’re through this.”

“DO EVERYTHING”

Certain pandemic problems facing KISD are out of the district’s control, Beaulé said, but instead are the responsibility of state and federal officials.

“The 10-day (COVID leave) period was established by the FFCRA (Families First Coronavirus Response Act), but the issue with that is it assumes COVID is a one-and-done deal. And it’s not. It doesn’t factor in that a day care could be closed multiple times. The 10 days is helpful but it is not the end all. It’s important to understand that, unless the district is able to shoulder tens of millions of dollars, those are things where they don’t have the support but they still have the problem.”

The KISD school board’s passing of extended COVID leave in January and extended FMLA protections last week, Beaulé said, are signs of local positive steps in the right direction.

Still, he said, more could and should be done at the federal level.

“Nobody is expecting anybody to be perfect in this process,” he said. “As teachers, we say, ‘We don’t expect perfection but we do expect perfect effort.’ When we look in that rearview mirror, what are we going to see? Because once somebody passes, once somebody dies, you have to ask if we did do everything. The point of non-consequential speculation is gone, and the point of reflection is all you have left.

“If I were speaking to those people (at the Department of Education), I’d say ‘Do everything,’ because you don’t know if you’ve done enough until you hit the end.”

254-501-7567 | ldodd@gmail.com

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