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In New Orleans, schools lost veteran teachers who taught in the city before Hurricane Katrina at a significantly higher rate than would have been expected. The same exodus of retirement-age teachers could happen after the novel coronavirus epidemic. Credit: Cheryl Gerber for The Hechinger Report

Eventually we will flatten the curve, create a vaccine for Covid-19 and re-open school buildings that have been shuttered for months. But schools won’t look the same.

In particular, students may not see some of their most beloved teachers when they come back to school next year.

A study of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina offers powerful insights into what we might see on the other side of our social distancing efforts. One of the most important, and potentially devastating, effects of our current extended period of homeschooling is a likely flood of early retirements.

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Comparisons to post-Katrina New Orleans make a lot of sense. The causes of our impending recession are more akin to what happened in the Gulf South after Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005 than to the housing crisis, sparked in 2008: An unprecedented, singular natural disaster forced multiple cities to shut down schools and businesses for months. An obvious difference is people aren’t being forced to leave their homes because of the coronavirus. Yet, just as the pandemic is upending our entire society, Katrina forever changed Southern Louisiana and parts of Mississippi, its schools, and the mindset of anyone who lived through that period.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of Katrina’s social impact is shown in before-and-after pictures of the city’s teacher workforce. The Orleans Parish School Board effectively fired all its teachers almost four months after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. The mass firing is a case study in itself of the way educators — including the black teachers who made up approximately 70 percent of the teaching force — are often devalued in the wake of a tragedy. Teachers haven’t lost their jobs this time around, at least not yet, but what happened next in New Orleans is telling.

Half the teachers dismissed in the wake of Katrina eventually came back by fall 2007, according to research by Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance. About a third were re-employed in New Orleans schools and 18 percent were re-employed in other Louisiana Parishes. But by 2013, the number of teachers still employed who worked before the storm had fallen significantly. The proportion of pre-Katrina teachers in the New Orleans teaching force had declined to 22 percent.

Related: After coronavirus subsides, we must pay teachers more

The researchers found departures from the system were 10 percentage points higher than they would have expected, based on historical data. To put it plainly, the new schools of New Orleans did not retain teachers who would have otherwise stayed.

When American schools open their doors again, more experienced, older teachers may find the dangers of returning to schools, while the novel coronavirus is still affecting even some of the population, is too great. Older adults are more at risk of becoming severely ill or dying from Covid-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The overwhelming majority of deaths have occurred in people who are at or above retirement age. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that about 23 percent of the teaching workforce in the United States was age 50 to 59 in 2012, the most recent federal data available, with more than 7 percent older than 60.

And an impending recession will certainly mean states and districts will have less revenue to pass on to classrooms. After enduring months of social distancing measures, experienced teachers may not want to suffer such likely austerity measures as increased class sizes, reductions in new teacher hires and the elimination of support staff, prominent reasons why teachers leave the profession. As during the last recession, the districts that can least afford it — those with the kids who have the highest needs, and who need high-quality experienced teachers the most — will be hit the hardest.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of Katrina’s social impact is shown in before-and-after pictures of the city’s teacher workforce.

One of my greatest worries is that districts won’t invest in the most vulnerable — but very valuable — teachers, feeding even more attrition.

After Katrina, new, emerging charter school providers didn’t see a good fit in their schools for the teachers who taught before the storm — most of them black. It was the black community, already reeling from lower incomes, home values and wealth , who weren’t invited back in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans’ black teacher workforce dropped by 20 percent 10 years after hurricane Katrina, according to the Education Research Alliance report. They were replaced by a younger, whiter teaching corps. The black-majority district lost assets that could have raised achievement. Research shows that black students who have one black teacher by third grade are 7 percent more likely to graduate high school and 13 percent more likely to enroll in college. After having two black teachers, black students’ likelihood of enrolling in college increases by 32 percent.

Related: Ready or not, a new era of homeschooling has begun

Districts that lose or devalue teachers may use technology to “optimize” their budgets by replacing the most vulnerable. In a past column, I wrote that the spread of artificial intelligence technology is replacing human teachers with software in such places as the Mississippi Delta. As a parent who can own up to my lack of ability to teach academic subjects to my child, I’m hoping labor unions and parents alike will encourage districts to protect real teachers in our new normal.

I’m all for change and progress. We are currently developing learning platforms and practices that will endure. I see how distance learning tools add value to my child’s life, and I hope they will be a part of my child’s future. But new technology does not replace the need for experienced and thoughtful teachers. It’s a lesson school districts would do well to learn.

This story about experienced teachers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously,...

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  1. Thank you, Dr. Perry. As someone being laid off by ISTE, I’m grateful to hear from a serious educator who doesn’t believe that Edtech is the answer to all education.
    Best regards,
    Lynn Ray Magers-Pardo

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