Unprecedented shortage of bus drivers and substitutes. A variant of the coronavirus that has quarantined entire swathes of students and staff. Pressure to help students readjust and catch up.
As schools face this battery of challenges, they lack another key resource: teachers.
In 18 of the 20 major U.S. school districts that provided data to Chalkbeat, the number of vacant teacher positions has risen this year, often up. In Los Angeles, the district started the year short of 500 teachers, a figure that has hovered around 100 in the past two years. In Memphis-area schools, more than 200 teaching positions were vacant at the start of the year, a record in five years.
The share of vacant teaching posts is often only 2 or 3%. But the numbers mean thousands of students have started the school year without full-time teachers or the extra help schools had hoped to provide – a worrying sign for schools trying to help students recover from the pandemic .
The shortages “limit the means by which districts seek to invest in recovery and redesign,” said Jonathan Travers, who works with school officials through consultancy firm Education Resource Strategies. “It’s just taking a few things off the table.”
Principal Sabine Phillips saw the problem looming when she started looking for teachers this summer and found an unusually small pool of applicants.
His school, Margate Middle School in Broward County, Fla., Started this school year with three teachers out of a faculty of about 60. “What that means is you start with a disadvantage,” he said. she declared. “Students don’t necessarily start the program because you put someone in there who isn’t certified.
Research confirms his concern. A 2017 study by researchers at Brown University found that students whose teachers are hired after the start of the school year learn less than their peers, including students whose new teachers were hired on time. .
Phillips has now filled all three positions. But she knows it could be a difficult time to adjust. “There’s such a learning curve,” she said, “when you walk into a school after you start school”.
Schools in her district have experienced similar challenges. Broward started the year missing 365 teachers (or about 2.5%), more than triple the number from the previous year and double the number before COVID.
Montgomery County in Maryland started the year with 283 teaching positions (about 2%), down from just 41 last year and 85 the year before. Schools saw a slight increase in the number of teachers announcing their intention to leave at the end of the summer, complicating recruitment efforts.
“When it comes in late in the year, the quality and the number of applicants just isn’t there,” said Travis Wiebe, who works in the Montgomery County human resources office.
Public schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma saw their open teaching positions jump to 193 this year (or 4.4%), from 38 last year and 101 the year before. “We’re seeing shortages throughout our system,” said Devin Fletcher, director of actions and talents at Tulsa.
Hiring has been particularly difficult, according to school officials, in areas like special education, math and science that were difficult before the pandemic.
There are a few exceptions to the model. Baltimore City and Chicago saw job vacancies increase slightly from last year, but their numbers were similar to 2019. Two districts – Gwinnett County, Georgia and Pinellas County, Florida – saw the number of vacancies drop slightly. Overall, however, data obtained by Chalkbeat – from most of the country’s 30 largest districts and a handful of smaller ones – shows that vacancies are up from 2020 and 2019.
These vacancies may leave classes to be filled by substitutes or rotating teachers with no subject matter expertise. To fill open classrooms, schools can ultimately hire candidates they may have already dropped out of.
“At one point, we focus less on quality and more on just putting something in place,” Travers said.
Phillips experienced this, hiring staff who weren’t quite up to the challenges of college. “It’s going to be difficult for them,” she said. “They don’t know the middle school kid, so they had problems.”
Meanwhile, many schools face shortages in other roles, primarily bus drivers, but also paraprofessionals, counselors, nurses and security guards. At the same time, they assess the aggressiveness with which to apply vaccination mandates to reluctant employees. More staff are also absent on any given day due to quarantines, meaning every adult counts.
In Tulsa, daily teacher absences are double what they usually are, Fletcher said. “The people who work so hard in schools are not able to focus on their core work because they are trying to make sure that we are able to stay afloat,” he said.
Schools are not alone. Nationally, there are widespread labor shortages across all industries for reasons that experts continue to debate.
The increase in teaching vacancies is likely due to a combination of fewer people applying to become teachers, more teachers leaving the profession, and additional roles created with the COVID relief money.
Miami-Dade County, for example, started the school year with 350 unfilled teacher positions, up from 242 last year. But “a large portion” of the vacancies were for additional posts created to support students, a spokesperson noted.
Others say they see increased revenue driving the problem.
“In a number of places,” said Joe Hettler of the consultancy firm TNTP, which works with school districts, “teacher pay in combination with COVID has simply kept teachers from coming back.”
Data on teacher turnover is still limited, which means that it is not yet clear where the balance is. Either way, the shortages could ultimately derail ambitious plans by schools to address gaps in student learning and growing mental health issues.
“There is a ripple effect that occurs when there are shortages, vacancies and sickness-related absences,” Fletcher told Tulsa. These issues, he said, “distract from what we planned to do for student recovery.”
Mila Koumpilova, Cathryn Stout, Patrick Wall and Samantha West contributed reporting.