Pandemic makes teacher shortages even worse

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CHICAGO (NewsNation Now) — A staffing shortage is leaving some school districts across the county understaffed or in a bind. Teacher shortages predate the coronavirus pandemic — there is reduced funding in many states since the last recession — and the virus has only made the problem worse, prompting many teachers to leave the profession or take early retirement.

“The shortage was very real before the pandemic and has been exacerbated,” said Dr. Sean Schweizer, the associate superintendent at East Maine District 63 in Illinois. “Just a few years ago when we had an elementary school classroom teaching job we would get a few hundred applicants and now we’re getting 10 to 20 and right now we’re getting almost no applicants.”

Education leaders in states like Arizona, Kansas, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Texas are all bracing for even more drastic shortages.

The Missouri Board of Education made it easier to become a substitute teacher under an emergency rule. Instead of 60 hours of college credit, eligible substitutes only need a high school diploma, a 20-hour online training course, and a background check. Iowa is also relaxing their substitute teacher requirements.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo has signed an order allowing retired teachers to return to the classroom while continuing to collect their full pension, a move meant to help alleviate a shortage of substitutes exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic led many teachers to retire or work remotely because of health protocols. In the fall, the state started a substitute teacher recruitment program and called on retirees to resume teaching.

The order signed Dec. 30 waives the existing requirement that retired teachers’ state pensions be paused if they work for more than 90 days in the year.

State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green told NewsNation affiliate WPRI on Tuesday the pension pause was a “barrier” to getting retirees to return to the classroom.

“If you’re a retired teacher, please come join us,” Infante-Green said. “We need you now, and there will not be any penalty.”

The order requires school districts to inform the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island that a retiree is needed because of the pandemic and is not being employed past June 25.

Under the order, any retired teaching or administrative staff hired by a school district will not be entitled to additional retirement.

In Connecticut, college students have been asked to step in as substitutes. In Syracuse, New York, Christian Brothers Academy has found a unique solution to help with the staffing shortage — recruiting alumni for help.

President for the school, Matthew Keough, said former students were the perfect answer because they were home.

“Maybe they were home from college as a senior or working remotely from college, or maybe it’s their first job, and with what was going on economically and in universities, a lot of people were working from home,” he said.

He looked at the current labor force, and what was best for their students. So, he started reaching out to alumni.

Emily Rivito, an alumna, graduated in 2017 and is a sociology major at Hamilton College in Clinton. She says getting the opportunity to teach students will help her in the future.

“I feel like the need for social workers and just for other advocates, for students, for teachers, for all the other staff and parents in schools is so much more strongly needed now,” Rivito said.

Keough says having familiar faces in the school does help the students. “I think they like seeing the young alumni back.” He adds, “Some of them they remember when they were students here, some of them have seen pictures of them.”

According to Keough, they have about 20 alumni filling the positions. He said they are in good shape, thanks to the graduates who have stepped up.

Even before the pandemic, according to a Learning Policy Institute Report in 2016, there was a projected teacher shortfall of 316,000 teachers annually by 2025.

Jordan Smith, a former middle school teacher, is one of many who left the profession altogether last November. He’s now opened his own contractor business.

“When you’re teaching 30 plus students in an online class and you only have between 30 and 40 minutes and some of the kids are showing up late, you have internet outages, kids dropping they say, ‘wait, I didn’t hear that, you froze, can you come back,’ I mean if you break it down, you get less than a minute per student in each class,” Smith said.

Smith says he misses the connection with his students and he still keeps in touch with many of them.

The teacher shortage is more acute in high poverty schools and magnified and subjects like special education, science, and math.

The Associated Press and NewsNation affiliates WPRI and WSYR contributed to this report.

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