Teachers monitor students as they walk to their classrooms during the first day of school at Neshoba County Central Middle School on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

Superintendents, the chief administrative leaders of Mississippi’s 138 traditional public school districts, have in recent months been left to drive bus routes, serve food in school cafeterias, teach classes in place of teachers and substitutes, and conduct contact tracing missions to identify children who’ve been exposed to COVID-19.

And in what have undoubtedly been their worst moments, they’ve lost school staff and students to the virus.

Those in the education business say more superintendents are leaving before their contracts are up or are retiring early.  

“More superintendents are saying this has become so difficult and overwhelming that now they’ve reached retirement, they’re probably going to speed up the process and get out now rather than later,” said Jim Keith, a school board attorney for more than 20 Mississippi school districts. “It’s impossible to deal with all the issues — COVID, the accountability model, parents, student behavior. And it’s not just limited to the superintendents.”

While some have personal reasons or had already planned to retire, others say it all became too much – even to the point of causing health problems.   

“It’s been a heck of two school years for everybody in the school business,” said Philip Burchfield, executive director of the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents (MASS). “Currently it seems that more superintendents are choosing to leave or retire during the school year than in years past.”    

Just this week, the South Pike School District Superintendent Donna Scott announced she will resign at the end of the school year. And in September, Ken Byars of Amory School District abruptly left his post. He told the Enterprise Journal he was taking a job in consulting. Sue Townsend of Rankin County School District is retiring at the end of December, though she told Mississippi Today she is leaving because of a family member’s health issues.

In the 2020-21 school year, 17 superintendents retired, according to Burchfield. Burchfield said thus far, he is aware of another eight who plan to retire this school year. 

These numbers do not include superintendents who resigned, which MASS does not track. The Mississippi Department of Education tracks turnover from year to year, but that data also includes superintendents who move from one district to another. 

Twenty-seven superintendents left their positions from last school year and this school year, and 31 left between the 2019-20 — when COVID-19 arrived — and 2020-21 school years. The numbers for the two transition years before that were 21 and 25, respectively.

Officials at the Department of Education declined to comment on this story. 

For Adam Pugh, the former superintendent of Lafayette County School District, the stress at work led to health problems. And the death of teacher and coach Nacoma James, who passed away from COVID-19 in September of 2020, was a particularly personal tragedy.

Whenever Pugh looked at James, he still saw the boy he coached and taught in 1990. 

“He was a kid when I coached him in seventh grade, and the kid that I coached died,” he said of James. “I couldn’t protect” him. 

Pugh, who originally planned to retire after his 10th grade daughter graduated high school, said that feeling haunted him — the weight of not being able to keep his people safe.

And as a longtime educator of 31 years — 10 years as superintendent in Lafayette County — he remembered how discouraging it was when new superintendents would call to ask him for advice on how to handle issues. 

“There were new guys calling some of us veterans (superintendents) saying, ‘What do we do here?’ and I would have to tell them, ‘I don’t know,’” he said of the questions that arose during the pandemic. 

Warren Woodrow, who retired as superintendent of West Jasper School District at the end of last year, echoed Pugh. The district lost an employee who was both a bus driver and custodian, and there were the constant peripheral losses of students’ parents and grandparents. 

“It hit everybody from so many different ways that we just weren’t prepared for,” Woodrow said.

Woodrow said he primarily left for his current job heading up an organization in Hattiesburg that provides continuing education opportunities for educators in about 30 school districts. 

But he doesn’t mince words about how the pandemic and its accompanying challenges made a new job more appealing. 

“I’m going to put this plainly. I got in this business to be an educator, and walking around classrooms with a tape measure trying to decide who was six feet away from who” is a far cry from that, he said.

On top of the addition of public health overseer and contact tracer to his job description, there was a lot of work that went into planning for the federal funding school districts have received over the past almost two years.

“While they were extremely helpful and appreciated, they added a tremendous amount of work which was extremely stressful and time consuming for both me and my staff,” said Woodrow, who has been working in schools for 36 years.

Similar to many other superintendents and school board members across the state and country, Woodrow also became the target of parents’ frustrations and, occasionally, their ire. He recalled incidents of parents being angry that their children had to quarantine, or weren’t able to participate in extracurricular activities because they were learning virtually. 

Cory Uselton, the current superintendent of DeSoto County School District, the state’s largest school district, told Mississippi Today there are certainly more challenges this school year than before, including finding bus drivers, custodians and substitute teachers.

When he spoke to Mississippi Today in September, he had recently spent half a day substitute teaching. A few days before he spent several hours serving food in the cafeteria. Principals are now taking on cleaning responsibilities, he said.

He and the school board, along with other school officials around the state, are doing what they can to offset worker shortages. The school board recently raised pay for substitute teachers. 

“Here’s what I see as the biggest problem. You’ve got a restaurant out there that was paying $9 an hour and is now paying $13 an hour. They can raise the price of their menu items to make up that difference. We can’t do that,” said Uselton. “That’s going to be a challenge we’re going to face.”

And as schools round out the fall semester, school officials are also facing another massive challenge: addressing the learning loss many students experienced due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19. 

Woodrow admits he saw that looming challenge, and he wasn’t sure he was up to the task.

“It’s going to be a long-term issue,” Woodrow said. “… We have kids who started school (before COVID-19) a grade level or two behind, and who got even further behind. It would be very difficult to bridge that learning gap from all the time they missed.”

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.