Amid scrambles for teachers, some fear worse shortages ahead

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — As schools scramble to find enough substitute teachers to keep classrooms running through the latest surge of the coronavirus, some experts warn there are longer-term problems with the teacher pipeline that cannot be solved with emergency substitutes, bonuses and loosened qualifications.

For years, some states have been issuing fewer teaching licenses, and many districts have had trouble filling vacancies, particularly in poorer areas. Shortages are being felt much more widely due to absences during a pandemic that is testing educators like no other stretch of their careers, raising fears of many more leaving the profession.

To address the problem, states are raising salaries, seeking more teachers outside formal training programs, and pursuing other strategies to develop more educators.

School administrators hope it will be enough.

“I see a very large concern, it’s like impending doom almost, when you look out a few years at what this may turn into,” said Randal Lutz, superintendent of the Baldwin-Whitehall School District near Pittsburgh, where German classes had to go fully online last year when none of the handful of applicants was qualified for a vacancy.

Based on declining enrollment at teaching colleges and surveys of teachers about their future plans, shortages are likely to become more widespread, affecting regions and subject areas that traditionally have not been affected, said Jacqueline King, a researcher with the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

“What we seem to be seeing now is more widespread shortages in areas like elementary education and secondary English,” King said. “These weren’t fields that previously we thought, ‘Oh, there’s a big shortage there.’”

In Pennsylvania, the number of new teacher certifications fell by two-thirds in the 2010s. Although many of the state’s public universities began as teachers’ colleges, the number of education majors studying in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education has fallen from about 30,000 a decade ago to nearly 17,000 last year.

The trend worries Tanya Garcia, Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary for post-secondary and higher education.

“We used to be a prime exporter of educators, and now we’re not holding on to the people,” Garcia said.

Not every measure has been grim. Florida’s American Rescue Plan application said projected “day 1” teacher vacancies for the coming year dipped between 2019 and 2020. And California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing said initial teaching certificates increased from 15,400 in 2015-16 to 18,000 in 2019-20. Still, both are grappling with teacher shortages in particular specialties.

Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education group, argued in a January 2019 report that shortages were clearly a problem in some areas but generic teacher shortages that had been warned about in recent decades have not materialized. “The misalignment between teacher supply and demand is where the teacher shortage crisis is born and lives,” the report said.

To get through the omicron-drive surge, which hit school staffing hard, schools have adopted an-all-hands-on-deck approach with administrators, parents and even National Guard soldiers filling in as substitutes. Credential requirements have been loosened temporarily. And bonuses backed by federal relief money have been offered to make working in schools more appealing amid a labor shortage.

For the longer term, states have identified needs to invest in strategies to bolster the teacher pipeline. State officials outlined plans to improve teacher recruitment and retention in applications last year for federal COVID-19 relief money. They include fostering teacher aides to qualify them for classroom teaching vacancies and subsidizing college tuition.

Kansas has been working on expanding “pathways to the classroom” to greater diversify its teachers, requires mentorship for new teachers and is developing new programs for math teachers. Michigan’s education agency has encouraged districts to give particular focus to raising salaries for teachers at lower levels and to help keep them by advancing them more quickly through the salary schedule. Michigan has also hosted virtual job fairs for educators.

In its application, Nevada warned that its teacher pipeline has continued to shrink over time. Michigan reported its annual certification of new teachers is not keeping pace with demand. Kansas said the work of its commission to address educator retention and recruitment was disrupted by the pandemic and the number of new teachers could not keep pace with vacancies.

Concerns about teacher shortages that have arisen in the past, sometimes during wartime, have prompted stopgap measures similar to what are currently being developed, said Diana D’Amico Pawlewicz, a University of North Dakota education professor. The results, she said, can be ineffective and even counterproductive, with poorly prepared instructors who are more likely to leave the job within a few years of starting.

“We may be solving one problem – there’s no teacher, there’s no adult in the room at this moment – but we are creating a ripple effect of problems that are going to reverberate for years,” she said.

Factors blamed for the current shortages include a drop-off in hiring during the Great Recession, the availability of better paying options, the politicization of curriculum, frustrations over standardized tests, less generous pensions and concerns about class size, a lack of autonomy and inadequate resources.

The stresses of working through the pandemic threaten to further thin the ranks of educators. A survey of National Education Association members conducted in January released this week found 55% planned to leave education sooner than planned because of the pandemic, up from 37% in August.

“There are literally not enough staff to keep schools open,” NEA President Becky Pringle said. “This is the tragic consequence of decades spent chronically underfunding education and shortchanging students.”

Kerry Mulvihill, a science teacher at Gerald Huesken Middle School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said only five people applied for an 8th-grade science position this fall and none of them made it to the interview stage. Two special education teachers recently resigned in the middle of the year, a formerly rare occurrence during her 25 years as a teacher, she said.

“We really have a crisis,” Mulvihill said. “Now, I’m like, oh my golly. I’m begging people, hold in, hold in, we need quality people, for sure. We can’t all retire at the same time.”

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