Rural school districts in Texas are switching to four-day weeks this fall due to lack of staff. Florida is asking veterans with no teaching background to enter classrooms. Arizona is allowing college students to step in and instruct children.
The teacher shortage in America has hit crisis levels — and school officials everywhere are scrambling to ensure that, as students return to classrooms, someone will be there to educate them.
“I have never seen it this bad,” Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, said of the teacher shortage. “Right now it’s No. 1 on the list of issues that are concerning school districts . . . necessity is the mother of invention, and hard-pressed districts are going to have to come up with some solutions.”
It is hard to know exactly how many US classrooms are short of teachers for the 2022-2023 school year; no national database precisely tracks the issue. But state- and district-level reports have emerged across the country detailing staffing gaps that stretch from the hundreds to the thousands — and remain wide open as summer winds rapidly to a close.
The Nevada State Education Association estimated that roughly 3,000 teaching jobs remained unfilled across the state’s 17 school districts as of early August. In a January report, the Illinois Association of Regional School Superintendents found that 88 percent of school districts statewide were having "problems with teacher shortages" — while 2,040 teacher openings were either empty or filled with a "less than qualified" hire. And in the Houston area, the largest five school districts are all reporting that between 200 and 1,000 teaching positions remain open.
Carlton Jenkins, superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, said teachers are so scarce that superintendents across the country have developed a whisper network to alert each other when educators move between states.
"We’re at a point right now, where if I have people who want to move to California, I call up and give a reference very quick," he said. "And if someone is coming from another place — say, Minnesota — I have superintendent colleagues in Minnesota, they call and say, ‘Hey, I have teachers coming your way.’ "
Why are America’s schools so short-staffed? Experts point to a confluence of factors including pandemic-induced teacher exhaustion, low pay, and some educators’ sense that politicians and parents — and sometimes their own school board members — have little respect for their profession amid an escalating educational culture war that has seen many districts and states pass policies and laws restricting what teachers can say about US history, race, racism, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as LGBTQ issues.
"The political situation in the United States, combined with legitimate after effects of COVID, has created this shortage," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "This shortage is contrived."
The stopgap solutions for lack of staff run the gamut, from offering teachers better pay to increasing the pool of people who qualify as educators to bumping up class sizes. But many of these temporary fixes are likely to harm students by diminishing their ability to learn, predicted Dawn Etcheverry, president of the Nevada State Education Association.
"When you start to double classes, teachers don’t have that one-on-one with the students, that personal ability to understand what the student needs" — both academically and socially, Etcheverry said.
Danika Mills, a former school-based therapist and state director of Unite Us, a technology company that connects health and social services providers, said this diminishment in the quality of education is coming at the worst possible moment. America’s schoolchildren are still struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, she said, and the havoc months of online learning wreaked on students’ academic progress, social skills, and mental health.
"We know students of all ages suffered steep declines in academic achievement during the pandemic and now is the time to course-correct those changes," Mills said. "Instead, I think and fear we may be facing an even bigger decline."
Nevada’s Clark County School District, which serves 320,000 students, is one of many school systems taking a scattershot approach to staff shortages by trying several solutions at once. In hopes of shrinking its roughly 1,300 teaching vacancies, the district has raised the starting teacher salary by $7,000 and is offering a $4,000 "relocation bonus" to new teachers who move from out of state or more than 100 miles. In an interview, Superintendent Jesus F. Jara said the district is also granting employees a "retention bonus" of up to $5,000 for staying in their jobs.
But, with school slated to start in a week, the district is still only 92 percent staffed, Jara said. And — despite "around-the-clock" efforts from his human resources team — he does not believe the district will close the gap in time.
“I’m still worried, I am still losing sleep at night, and I’m not going to fill the rest of the 8 percent of our classrooms by Monday,” Jara said.
Come Aug. 8, the district will be forced to deploy patching measures, Jara said — including pulling administrators from the central office to work as substitutes and combining multiple classes together in large spaces such as auditoriums or gymnasiums.
“Band-aid-wise, I think they’re doing whatever they can,” said Jeff Horn, executive director of the Clark County Association of School Administrators. “It’s a mess.”