BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Everywhere, it seems, the start of the new school year has been clouded by fears of a teacher shortage.
The US Education Secretary has called for investments to prevent teachers from quitting. A teacher’s union leader described it as a five-alarm emergency. Media coverage warned of an education crisis.
In reality, there is little evidence to suggest that teacher turnover has increased nationally or that educators are leaving en masse.
Certainly, many schools have struggled to find enough educators. But the challenges are more related to hiring, especially for non-teaching staff positions. Schools brimming with federal money for pandemic relief are creating new positions and struggling to fill them at a time of low unemployment and fierce competition for workers of all kinds.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, schools struggled to recruit enough teachers in some areas, especially parts of the South. Areas such as special education and bilingual education also lack teachers nationwide.
For some districts, shortages mean children have fewer or fewer qualified instructors.
In rural Alabama’s black belt, there were no certified math teachers last year at the Bullock County public college.
“It really impacts the kids because they don’t learn what they need to learn,” said former county superintendent Christopher Blair. “When you have these uncertified, emergency, or inexperienced teachers, students find themselves in classrooms where they won’t get the level of rigor and classroom experiences.”
While the country lacks job vacancy data in several states, national weak points are evident.
For starters, the pandemic has triggered the biggest decline in education employment on record. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people employed in public schools fell from nearly 8.1 million in March 2020 to 7.3 million in May. Employment has returned to 7.7 million since then, but that still leaves schools short of around 360,000 positions.
“We’re still trying to dig out of this hole,” said Chad Aldeman, director of policy at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab.
It’s unclear how many of those lost positions were jobs for teachers or other staff like bus drivers – support positions that schools are particularly hard pressed to fill. A RAND survey of school leaders this year found that around three-quarters of school leaders say they are trying to hire more substitutes, 58% are trying to hire more bus drivers and 43% try to hire more tutors.
Yet the problems are not as teacher-leaving as many have suggested.
Teacher surveys indicated that many were considering quitting their jobs. They are under pressure to protect children from guns, catch up with them academically and address pandemic mental health and behavioral challenges.
National Education Association union leader Becky Pringle tweeted in April: “The shortage of educators is a five-alarm crisis.” But a Brown University study found that turnover was largely unchanged among states that had data.
Education dropout rates have increased slightly this year, but that’s true for the country as a whole, and teachers remain much more likely to keep their jobs than a typical worker.
Hiring has been so difficult largely due to an increase in vacancies. Many schools have signaled their intention to use federal relief money to create new jobs, in some cases seeking to hire even more people than they had before the pandemic. Some nearby schools are vying for fewer applicants as college enrollment in teacher-prep programs has dwindled.
The Upper Darby School District in Pennsylvania has about 70 positions it is trying to fill, particularly bus drivers, lunch aides and substitute teachers. But he does not find enough candidates. The district has warned families it may have to cancel school or switch to remote learning on days it runs out of subs.
“It’s become a district-to-district financial competition to do this, and it’s unfortunate for children in communities who deserve the same opportunities across the state,” said Superintendent Daniel McGarry.
The number of vacancies has led some states and school systems to relax degree requirements in order to broaden the pool of applicants. US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told reporters last week that creative approaches are needed to attract more teachers, such as retired educators, but that schools should not lower standards.
Schools in the South are more likely to struggle with teaching vacancies. A federal survey found an average of 3.4 teaching vacancies per school this summer; this number was lowest in the West, with an average of 2.7 vacancies, and highest in the South, with 4.2 vacancies.
In Birmingham, the school district is struggling to fill about 50 teaching positions, including 15 in special education, despite signing bonuses of $10,000 for special education teachers. Jenikka Oglesby, district human resources manager, says part of the problem is low wages in the South that don’t always compensate for a lower cost of living.
The school system in Moss Point, a small town near the Mississippi Gulf Coast, has raised salaries to attract more applicants. But other neighboring neighborhoods have done the same. Some teachers realized they could make an extra $30,000 working 30 minutes in Mobile, Alabama.
“I have personally lost some very good teachers to schools in Mobile County,” said Tenesha Batiste, Moss Point District Human Resources Manager. And she also lost some not-so-great teachers, she added — people who breached their contracts and quit three days before the start of the school year.
“It’s the job that makes everyone else possible, but they get paid once a month, and they can go to Chick-fil-A in some places and make more money,” Batiste said.
A bright spot for Moss Point this year is four student teachers from the University of Southern Mississippi. They will spend the school year working with children in a residency program for future educators. The state has invested nearly $10 million in federal relief funds in residency programs, with the hope that residents will stay and become teachers in their assigned districts.
Michelle Dallas, a resident teacher in a Moss Point freshman class, recently left a career in mental health and is convinced she’s meant to be a teacher.
“That’s why I’m here,” she says, “to fulfill my vocation.”
This story is part of an Associated Press collaboration with AL.com, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Fresno Bee in California, The Hechinger Report, The Seattle Times and The Post and Courier in Charleston, Carolina. South.
Associated Press writers Brooke Schultz in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Collin Binkley in Washington, DC, and Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, NY contributed to this report. Lurye reported from New Orleans. Schultz is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.
The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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