A desperate California school district sends home leaflets in student lunch boxes telling parents that “it is now being hired.” In other places, school principals step in as border guards, teachers are offered signature bonuses and schools are going back to online learning.
Now that schools are welcoming students back into their classrooms, they are facing a new challenge: a shortage of teachers and staff that some districts say they have never seen before.
Public schools have struggled with teacher shortages for years, particularly in math, science, special education and languages. But the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the problem. The stress of teaching in the COVID-19 era has sparked an increase in retirements and layoffs. Schools also need to hire staff such as tutors and special assistants to make up for learning losses and more teachers to run an online school for those who do not want to return.
In Tennessee, New Jersey and South Dakota, where a district started the school year with 120 teaching positions, there were reports of teacher shortages and difficulties in filling positions. Across Texas, major counties in Houston, Waco, and elsewhere reported hundreds of apprenticeship positions earlier this year.
Several schools across the country have had to close their classrooms due to a lack of teachers.
In Michigan, Eastpointe Community Schools abruptly switched their middle school back to distance learning this week because it didn’t have enough teachers. In the small district north of Detroit, 43 vacancies – a quarter of the teaching staff. When several middle school teachers gave notice last week, the district switched to online teaching to avoid sending unqualified substitute teachers, said spokeswoman Caitlyn Kienitz.
“You don’t just want an adult who can pass a background check, you want a teacher in front of your children,” said Kienitz. “This is of course not ideal, but we can make sure that they get every subject from a teacher who is certified for it.”
According to a June poll of 2,690 members of the National Education Association, 32% said the pandemic caused them to leave the job earlier than expected. Another survey by RAND Corp. found that the pandemic exacerbated wear and tear, burnout and stress in teachers, who were almost twice as likely to experience work-related stress as other working adults and almost three times more likely to be depressed.
The teacher shortage is “really a national and definitely a national problem,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of California’s State Board of Education.
A school district in West Contra Costa County, California, is considering hiring out-of-state math teachers to teach online while a representative monitors students in person.
“This is the most acute labor shortage we’ve ever had,” said Assistant Superintendent Tony Wold. âThis year we opened 50 – that’s five-zero – open apprenticeships. This means that the students go to 50 classrooms that do not have a permanent teacher. “
There are an additional 100 posts for non-accredited but critical staff such as teaching assistants helping English learners and students with special needs, guards, cafeteria staff and others, Wold said.
California’s largest district, Los Angeles Unified with 600,000 students, has more than 500 open teaching positions, a five-fold increase over previous years, said spokeswoman Shannon Haber.
Schools are trying to find replacements, but they are also in short supply. Only about a quarter of the pool of 1,000 skilled replacement workers is ready to work in Fresno Unified, said Nikki Henry, a spokeswoman for the central California district of 70,000 students and 12,000 employees.
At Berkeley High School, a shortage of substitute teachers means teachers have to step in during their prep times, resulting in exhaustion and burnout that normally aren’t felt at the start of a school year.
âWe are very tense. It’s been an incredibly stressful way to start the year, âsaid Hasmig Minassian, a ninth grade teacher who describes physical and mental exhaustion as she tries to balance staffing needs and the emotional needs of students, the signs of more mental fragility and learning ability indicate loss.
âIt doesn’t feel like there are enough adults on these campuses to really protect the children. We feel understaffed in ways we’ve never felt before, âshe said. âDo you know the early videos of nurses crying in their cars? I expect them to speak up about teachers. “
California’s bottlenecks range from bad to less severe in places planned ahead of time and outperforming the competition, but these are the minority, said Darling-Hammond of the Education Committee.
In a new twist, money is not the main problem. The school districts have the means to hire additional staff, thanks to billions in aid from the federal and state governments for pandemic aid. There are just no people who apply.
“We’re all competing for ever smaller pieces of the pie,” said Mike Ghelber, assistant principal at Morongo Unified School District in the Mojave Desert, which offers more than 200 positions for special educators, caretakers, cafeteria staff and others. “I don’t know if everyone will be caught or if they don’t want to teach in the COVID era, but it’s like the well has dried up.”
The 8,000-student district has ads in newspapers, radio, and social media. Teachers put “now hiring” flyers in children’s lunch boxes with a long list of offers for families to get the word out about. In the meantime, everyone is lending a hand.
âPrincipals and administrators are on the move as border guards. Secretaries regulate the traffic because we lack guards, âsaid Ghelber.
The shortage raises concerns that schools will hire underqualified teachers, especially in low-income communities that are already more difficult to fill, Darling-Hammond said.
The class sizes are also increasing.
The Mount Diablo Unified School District, which serves 28,000 students east of San Francisco, had to fill several elementary school classes with the maximum capacity of 32 students. It’s not ideal for social distancing, but it does set teachers free for online school.
Approximately 150 children initially signed up for distance learning, but with spikey infections attributable to the highly contagious Delta variant, the number rose to 600 when the school reopened. The same happened in Fresno, where the number of enrollments for distance learning exploded from 450 to 3,800.
Superintendent Adam Clark said Mount Diablo District is offering $ 5,000 signing bonuses for speech therapists and $ 1,500 for parapedagogues to help students with learning needs.
San Francisco Unified offers a similar entry-level bonus for 100 paraeducer jobs. Nearby West Contra Costa County Unified has set a bonus of $ 6,000 for teachers, with a third paid after the first month and the teacher moving into third grade.
Districts in Oklahoma, North Carolina, New Jersey, and elsewhere offer a number of monetary incentives for new teachers, especially in low-income and low-performing schools.
Of a dozen officials interviewed in California counties, only one said there was no shortage.
Long Beach Unified, the fourth largest district in the state with over 70,000 students, expected about 400 jobs to be needed last spring.
“We have become fully aggressive,” said Deputy Superintendent David Zaid, including adding human resources for a 24-hour turnaround on contract offers.
A virtual interview team worked over the summer. Recruiting events attracted hundreds of applicants, and when HR reps met the hiring benchmarks, they received rewards like breakfast with catering and an ice cream truck.
“We would probably have experienced the same bottlenecks as others,” said Zaid. “But we’ve become much more assertive, and as a result we’re not in the same position.”