7 On Your Side Investigates: NY teacher retirements jump 121% in August amid COVID pandemic

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Hundreds of teachers across New York State who may not have retired this year are bowing out amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to retirement data obtained by 7 On Your Side Investigates.

Overall retirements through August in 2020 were up more than 9% over last year.

While most teachers announce their retirements in late spring or early summer, this year, the number of teachers announcing their retirements in August 2020 climbed 121% compared to the same month last year.

"In my heart that wasn't what I wanted to do, but my options were limited," said Theresa DeMattia, a second grade teacher at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Yorktown Heights. "If the pandemic had not happened, no, I definitely would not have retired."

DeMattia is turning 65, and she is also her 96-year-old mother's primary caregiver. She said returning to in-class instruction seemed like a risk, and remote teaching wasn't her strength.

Without what she described as a suitable accommodation, she made the hard choice to retire.

"It's unfortunate, it really is," she said. "I'm trying to go on, to be grateful for what I have and not stay focused at a very sad place."

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DeMattia is among the thousands of teachers facing a similar loss and saying goodbye decades-long careers without any formal sendoff.

"The pandemic hit in February, and when I went home, I had no idea that was the beginning of the end," DeMattia said. "I wish I could hug people and tell them I'll miss you and I won't see you again, and I do believe when it is over I will be able to go say goodbye, but when is that? Next June? A year from now? That doesn't do a lot of good for right now."

In a survey conducted by the New York State United Teachers, the union representing teachers outside New York City, 55% of teachers aged 55 and older indicated the pandemic had made it more likely they would retire or leave early.

Major factors in decisions to leave the profession included being primary caregivers and health concerns, both factors in DeMattia's decision.

"We have to be safe," she said. "We have to think about that. It's a life threatening thing."

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After 30 years teaching, DeMattia didn't get to stay goodbye in the way she would have liked. Her final class sent her remote farewells she said she will never forget.

"We have so many teachers that are going through so much right now," NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said. "We are losing a lot by having folks leave and prematurely. There are folks right now who need accommodations."

Pallotta adds these retirements are a loss not only for the individual teachers, but for education as a whole.

"As a new teacher myself many years ago, I needed the mentoring a senior teacher could give me so that is a big loss," Pollatta said. "There is a teacher shortage right now."

A spokesperson for the New York City teacher's union, the United Federation of Teachers, indicated the single biggest day for announcing retirements in NYC is July 1 and added that this year did not show a considerable increase in retirement announcements on that day in the city.

The New York City Retirement System has yet to respond to our request for more thorough information regarding teacher retirements.

In a statement, a New York City Department of Education spokesperson wrote, "Our plans for the fall are built with input from our public health experts, and we'll work with all of our educators to ensure they are safe and supported working every day. We're reviewing requests for accommodation for teachers who have specific health needs, and teachers who receive accommodations will continue to support our students and teach remotely this fall."

In New York City, requests for reasonable accommodations are being considered under the American with Disabilities Act and in accordance with the medical conditions identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as leaving people at risk.

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