Teacher shortages are a big problem in the U.S. The coronavirus pandemic could make it worse.

Elise Solé
·7 mins read

Educators who fear returning to school amid the coronavirus pandemic are quitting, retiring or taking leave, contributing to teacher shortages in the U.S. Now schools are grasping at solutions to salvage the academic year.

Nearly six months into the pandemic, U.S. schools are opening with in-person classes, remote instruction or a “hybrid” option, corresponding with community transmission rates or state government orders. But teachers who oppose in-person learning are resisting. Some have applied for temporary paid leave through the Family First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA); others are retiring (28 percent of educators included in a nationwide National Education Association poll said the pandemic increases their odds of early retirement); and some, such as in Florida and Iowa, have sued their states for local authority over school reopening plans. Sometimes walking away can be costly — teachers in Kansas who resign amid the pandemic may be required to pay their districts thousands of dollars to supplement rehiring costs, according to the Associated Press.

Teacher shortages have always been a crisis due partly to a lack of qualified applicants, low wages and lack of career support, according to a 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute. “You would think states would panic upon hearing this,” teacher Kelly Treleaven wrote in a New York Times op-ed that cited the report. Instead, “they slash the education budget, which forces districts to cut jobs (increasing class size), put off teacher raises and roll back the quality of teachers’ health care. They ignore teachers’ pleas for buildings without black mold creeping out of ceiling tiles, for sensible gun legislation, and for salaries we can live on without having to pick up two to three additional part-time jobs. So, a lot of good and talented teachers leave.”

According to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, teacher shortages can’t be simplified to staff walkouts. First, full-time in-person learning demands more infrastructure and more of a workforce than schools can afford in the first place, according to an AFT report. “If we did what President Trump has proposed — open in person, five days a week — schools would need 47 percent more teachers and 47 more space [to handle] physical distancing,” Weingarten tells Yahoo Life.

She adds that hiring substitute teachers isn’t the answer either, since many are retired. “Who would sub in a situation like this?” Weingarten says. Still, according to an August report by staffing service Kelly Education and EdWeek Research Center, the pandemic may obligate substitute teachers to fill in for full-time colleagues who get infected.

Weingarten says that teachers with disabilities may ask their employers to make reasonable accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act, but there are limitations, and if teachers aren’t satisfied with the outcome, they may be motivated to leave their jobs. Weingarten says districts themselves play a role in shortages by offering well-intentioned retirement packages or failing to hire enough teachers because of a short timetable and budget cuts.

In a statement provided to Yahoo Life, U.S. Department of Education press secretary Angela Morabito says, “Union propaganda is yet again obscuring the truth.”

“Secretary [Betsy] DeVos moved quickly at the start of this national emergency to make $13 billion in CARES Act funding available for K-12 schools,” the statement reads. “This fund exists to help schools continue educating their students safely, and so far, only 7 percent of it has been drawn down by states and districts. The CDC guidelines make clear that schools can reopen safely, and medical experts agree that a safe return to schools is what’s best for students. Unions must not be allowed to hold schools hostage until their political demands are met, especially since safe reopenings are possible — and they’re happening across the country in districts that are putting students first.”

Still, the downsides to teacher vacancies are pervasive. The Kelly Education-EdWeek Research Center report says that vacant teaching positions lead to increased class sizes, student behavioral problems and lower standards for hiring both permanent and substitute teachers.

Schools respond to shortages differently. JC Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, told WTVF in Nashville that if local vacancies can’t be filled, schools might hire virtual, out-of-state teachers “with no experience.” Superintendent Bill Husfelt of Bay District Schools in Florida told WMBB-TV that teachers are clamoring for the few available virtual spots offered in the district. “They are going to have to make a decision — do I go back to the classroom or do I take a leave? Those are tough decisions,” he said. And according to the Associated Press in June, Virginia education officials have waived some state requirements so teachers can get licensed.

And some are flat-out changing their curriculums. Although Berkeley Heights Public Schools in New Jersey met enough safety criteria to open with a hybrid plan, 21 teachers requested leave under the FFCRA due to “significant child care issues,” per a district announcement from superintendent Melissa Varley. The district has not been able to replace those teachers, especially those in specialized subjects like chemistry and languages. “We have had zero applicants for some positions,” Varley tells Yahoo Life. Without sufficient staffing, the district, which planned to open on Sept. 3 with hybrid learning, will proceed remotely five days later.

And at Boyertown Area School District in Pennsylvania, virtual learning will replace in-person teaching until Oct. 5, according to an Aug. 21 letter from the district, with shortages that grow by at least five employees per day. Even with the help of furloughed or substitute staff, “there simply are not enough human resources available to cover the face-to-face learning needs of our students safely and with health as a priority,” wrote substitute superintendent Marybeth Torchia.

Patrenia Dozier-Washington adored teaching first grade at Ojus Elementary School in Miami, so she delayed her retirement. But when the pandemic hit her state, the educator of 38 years left her job. “We had a teacher shortage before the pandemic, and now [we’re] forced into a situation that jeopardizes [our] health,” she tells Yahoo Life. In July, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an emergency order for schools to open with in-person classes. On Monday, a judge issued a temporary injunction against the state’s order, siding with the Florida Education Association.

Dozier-Washington has asthma, high blood pressure and allergies, putting her at risk for COVID-19. “I [had to] remove myself from the situation,” she says. “It felt like I was forced into a situation where I had to compromise my health and life to do something that I loved.” A spokesperson from Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which opens remotely on Aug. 31, tells Yahoo Life that teachers were given the option of teaching from home or the classroom during phase one of Florida’s reopening plan, which occurred in May. “Our actions have always been dictated by what is in the best interest of students and employees,” says the representative.

The educator says President Trump’s July threat to cut off funding for schools that don’t reopen was a guilt trip for teachers who care deeply about their children. “I don’t think the president understands,” she says, “this is a death sentence.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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