Pandemic Teacher Shortages Imperil In-Person Schooling

The nation’s schools need thousands of more teachers, full-time and substitute, to keep classrooms open during coronavirus outbreaks.

As exposure to the coronavirus forced thousands of teachers across the United States to stay home and quarantine this winter, administrators in the Washoe County School District, which serves 62,000 students in western Nevada, pulled out all the stops to try to continue in-person instruction for students.

They exhausted the district’s regular supply of substitute instructors. They asked teachers to use their planning periods to cover classes for quarantining colleagues. Some schools tapped principals, librarians, guidance counselors and other staff members to teach classes or monitor lunch and recess. The superintendent even filled in for an absent teacher.

“We had to embrace an all-hands-on-deck mind-set to keep schools open,” said Joe Ernst, an area superintendent who oversees 24 Washoe County schools.

But by late November, the virus had forced so many teachers to stay home that the district was unable to cover some 2,000 requests for substitutes. Soon after, the district halted in-person instruction, shifting all middle and high schools to remote learning until this week.

Washoe County’s struggles typify the battle that many schools are waging to continue in-person instruction. Across the country, state education and district officials say the pandemic has intensified a longstanding teacher shortage to crisis levels.

As spikes in virus infections and exposures have forced more educators to stay home, the teacher shortage — exacerbated by limited access to Covid-19 testing and contact tracing — is among the main reasons that schools and even entire districts have had to shut down in-person instruction, often for weeks on end.

“It’s just such a ripple effect,” said Laura Penman, the superintendent of Eminence Community Schools, a tiny district in rural Indiana. The district had to briefly close its only elementary school in November because a single infected educator had come into contact with multiple colleagues. There were not enough substitutes or staff members to fill in. “Teacher shortages can make a whole school go virtual,” she said.

Desperate to stanch staffing shortfalls, districts large and small are increasing pay for substitutes and even advertising for temporary positions on local billboards. Some states and districts have also suspended college course requirements, or permitted abbreviated online training, for emergency substitute teachers.

Although stopgap staffing solutions may be necessary during the pandemic, education experts say they could diminish the quality of in-person learning, further disrupting education for a generation of children.

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“Each day, these children are having a new teacher in front of them,” Mr. Ernst, the Washoe County area superintendent, said in a school board presentation this winter, echoing the concerns of educators and parents nationwide. “The overall continuity of education is substantially impacted.”

The U.S. public school system has been grappling with a shortage of regular, full-time teachers for years. There is reduced education funding in many states, and one study before the pandemic reported that schools nationwide needed more than 100,000 additional full-time licensed teachers, particularly in science and special education. The coronavirus is vastly exacerbating that shortfall, experts say, by prompting many teachers to leave the profession or take early retirement.

The pandemic has also caused many retired educators who had regularly worked as substitutes to turn down the in-person teaching gigs.CORONAVIRUS SCHOOLS BRIEFING: It’s back to school — or is it?Sign Up

“There’s a definite teacher shortage,” said Jeffrey Thoenes, the superintendent of Comstock Public Schools in Kalamazoo, Mich., noting that his district had recently logged about two dozen teacher absences in one day — far outstripping the three substitutes available to cover their classes.

Education researchers said the pandemic teaching shortage would likely intensify learning disparities, especially in high-poverty schools where experienced substitutes often choose not to work.

“It’s a disaster. Those kids who have already got the worst of Covid and its consequences are the ones who are going to face a larger lack of sufficient, and sufficiently qualified, teachers,” said Emma Garcia, an education economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington. “It’s going to have negative consequences immediately and it’s going to take them longer to be able to catch up.”

Indeed, recent data from the Household Pulse Survey, an experimental effort from the U.S. Census Bureau to measure Americans’ experiences during the pandemic, suggests that the decreased availability of teachers — both in-person and online — may disproportionately affect low-income students.

In the two weeks before the December holiday break, for instance, 6.3 million survey respondents said children in their households had no live contact with their teachers in the preceding week. The impact was greatest in households earning $25,000 or less, the lowest income bracket, where nearly 1.4 million respondents said there was no contact; fewer than 300,000 respondents in the highest income bracket, households earning $200,000 or more, said the same.

As teacher availability decreases, many schools are seeking additional instructors both for in-person and virtual teaching positions. Kelly Education, an employment agency that provides temporary staff to school districts, said demand for long-term substitutes, who may take over an absent teacher’s classes for weeks or a semester, rose by 34 percent this school year.

To entice newcomers to try teaching during the pandemic, some districts are increasing pay or lowering the bar to entry by eliminating college course requirements for substitutes. Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia — one of the nation’s largest districts, with about 178,000 students — has tried both approaches. The district has been grappling with a decrease of more than 1,000 substitutes, amounting to a 30 percent drop.

After raising pay for short-term substitute teachers by $5, to $98 per day, proved insufficient to recruit enough fill-in teachers, the district lowered educational requirements for substitutes in December. Rather than needing 60 college credits, substitutes can now teach with a high school diploma. Monica Batiste, the district’s associate superintendent for human resources, said the rule change enabled the district to hire first- and second-year college students majoring in education.

Even so, the district’s efforts were no match for the pandemic. With 460 teachers stuck at home in January because of possible coronavirus exposures, the district has temporarily switched to remote learning starting this week.

In a pandemic that has already derailed education for millions of schoolchildren, lowering the bar for substitutes can be a fraught exercise. In Nevada, education experts were torn after Gov. Steve Sisolak issued a pandemic regulation allowing large urban districts to hire emergency substitute teachers with only high school diplomas — an option previously available only to smaller rural districts.

“We have to go to these extremes to get adults temporarily in the room to support our children,” said Jhone Ebert, the superintendent of public instruction for the Nevada Department of Education, emphasizing that substitutes who take over classes for teachers on extended absences must still meet the college requirement. “This is not a long-term fix,” Dr. Ebert said.

Emily Ellison, the chief human resource officer for the Washoe County School District, said the new rules had already enabled the district to vet, hire and train about 60 new substitutes.Schools During Coronavirus ›

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But some educators warned that even temporarily eliminating college credit requirements could diminish instructional quality. In an opinion piece last month in a local newspaper, Brian Rippet, the president of Nevada’s largest teachers’ union, described the waiver as an “Any Warm Body Will Do” regulation for substitute teachers.

While districts are intensifying their efforts to recruit temporary teachers, some current substitutes say they face precarious pandemic working conditions.

In the fall, Brandon Summers, a violinist in Las Vegas, began a semester-long substitute assignment as an orchestra teacher in the Clark County School District, the nation’s fifth-largest school system. Although the students were learning remotely, the district initially required substitute teachers to come into school and teach virtually from classrooms.

Paid $120 per day, Mr. Summers said he took on all of the duties of a regular licensed teacher without benefits like health insurance or paid sick days. He was also expected to quickly learn an array of online attendance and communications tools — all while teaching orchestra virtually to some 210 middle school students.

He is now part of a Las Vegas community group, United Substitutes for Higher Wages and Better Benefits, that is pushing for improved working conditions for district substitutes.

“It was just chaos,” Mr. Summers said of his pandemic teaching experience, adding that the school’s support team had no power to alleviate the increased teaching burdens for temporary instructors. “They were just happy to get another adult body in front of these kids.”

One potentially beneficial consequence of the teacher shortage crisis is that loosened substitute rules are enabling college students to gain hands-on classroom experience more quickly, potentially fast-tracking them into educational careers. This school year, education majors at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., began working as paid substitutes as part of their supervised student-teacher training.

In September, Allison LePort, then a senior at Marshall, began helping out in a kindergarten class in Mason County, W.Va. Ms. LePort, who graduated from college in December, then landed a long-term substitute assignment at the same school as a virtual teacher for fourth graders from four schools.

“Even with my student teaching experience, it’s been overwhelming,” Ms. LePort said, adding that her initial anxiety quickly dissipated as she developed a rapport with her students. “I couldn’t imagine not having an education background and going into it.”

The stopgap teaching measures that many school districts and states are rushing to adopt now could very well outlast the pandemic. And that, critics say, could end up permanently lowering the credentials for substitutes while failing to address the serious economic and professional issues underpinning longstanding teacher shortages.

“What’s at stake here is teachers’ ability to give and kids’ ability to learn,” said Ms. Garcia, the education economist. “What we need to really do is undo those Band-Aids and put together a strong strategy for solving the issues.”

The underlying causes of the teacher shortage, Ms. Garcia and others say, have long been clear: years of steep cuts in school fundinglow wages, difficult working conditions and lack of respect.

If the administration of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. hopes to solve that crisis, some experts say, it can start by fulfilling his campaign promise to give educators “the pay and dignity they deserve.”