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COVID-19 Didn’t Cause Teacher Shortage: But It Sure Didn’t Help

Glenn Allen High School
Nationwide numbers for the current teacher shortage are still being calculated, however, Covid-19 might be exacerbating the teacher shortage, say experts studying the issue. (Photo: Crixells Matthews/VPM News)

For former fifth grade teacher Brandy Samberg, the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t the root cause of her decision to leave the teaching profession after six years, but it did help push her out the door.

“I left in the long run because of COVID,” Samberg says. “Just with concerns of my own kids being in virtual school and needing that assistance, especially with my girls starting kindergarten at the same time. I knew from my experience and then [from] virtually teaching last year, it made work life balance really impossible.”

When the pandemic hit and schools went to a virtual and then to a hybrid format, Samberg thought about taking a part-time position. But that idea went out the window. Eventually, the around the clock lifestyle didn't leave her any time to spend with her own family. 

“Even when I was with them physically, I was mentally like planning lessons or dealing with the things that I needed to be doing,” Samberg says. “And it was causing a lot of anxiety and peaking my depression.”

Besides the issues around her work life balance and the ongoing pandemic, another factor was money. 

“The job didn't pay enough for the amount of work I was doing,” she says. “Morale was low. We felt like there were times where even though we were professionals, we weren't treated as such. And the expectations were just insane.”

Teacher Pay is Priority #1

In the Chesterfield County school district’s proposed budget for next year, raising teacher pay is listed as the number one priority.

At a previous budget meeting with the school board, Superintendent Merv Daugherty said he’s gearing part of his almost $760 million dollar budget proposal toward increasing teacher salaries.

“That’s the bottom line. We are not paying our teachers and our administrators the salaries that they deserve and the salaries at market value,” Daugherty said. “And I can tell you, speaking with many of the teachers, that they have to have second and third jobs, to make ends meet.”

Former teacher Samberg agrees with Daugherty. 

“I can say that most of the teachers I knew were working more than one job. They were either working retail or a restaurant,” she says.

Samberg adds that much of her paycheck also went towards buying classroom supplies,  something Daugherty’s proposed budget also hopes to fix. 

Teacher Shortages at the State and Local Levels

According to Tom Allen of the Virginia Education Association, Virginia continues to face a shortage of quality educators entering and remaining in the classroom. He says he anticipates that the pandemic will further impact that shortage. 

Allen gives this perspective.

“The number of unfilled positions increased from 440 during the 2010-2011 school year to a height of 1,081 in the 2016-2017 school year, then dropped slightly in the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 school years. In the 2019-2020 school year, the number of unfilled positions stood at 1,063. The percent of provisionally licensed and inexperienced teachers has climbed similarly.”

Here’s a graph representing Allen’s figures:

It’s worth noting that that the school years of 2010-2011 follow the period known as the “Great Recession,” in which there was an “economic downturn that was the longest since World War II. The Great Recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, which makes it the longest recession since World War II,” according to Federal Reserve History. State funding to schools was slashed when the recession began.

In the Richmond Region, every school district is in need of teachers.

“We typically hire over 400 teachers a year in Chesterfield,” says Kimberley Hough, executive director of human resources for the district. She says normally they have over 4,700 teachers on staff for roughly 60,000 students.

Currently, she says they have “double digit” vacancies for math teachers.

“It's a real challenge for us to make sure that we've filled those stem teaching positions, math and science with high quality candidates,” she says.

Prior to their budget season, an independent company hired by the county to look at teacher pay took a survey among teachers asking, in part, why they came to the county to work and why they would leave.

“They're staying for the location and their colleagues,” Hough says. “But when they talk about why people leave, over 80% of them identified the top two reasons as salary and opportunity for salary growth.”

Hough says the district has been having virtual job fairs with some interesting results.

“We're attracting some people registering from beyond the metro region here in Richmond,” she says. “We had a fair on January 30. We noticed some candidates from markets like New York City, Florida, Northern Virginia.”

The Henrico County school district only needs to hire 48 teachers, says spokesperson Andy Jenks. 

“That’s pretty standard, as there are always openings throughout any school year,” Jenks says. He adds that to fill gaps they rely on long-term substitutes and retirees, but “we’re always recruiting for full-time teachers, of course!”

Thirteen teachers need to be hired for Richmond Public Schools, says spokesperson Danielle Pierce.

Early Signs that the National Teacher Shortage is Due To Covid-19

Nationwide numbers for the current teacher shortage are still being calculated, says Michael DiNapoli of the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and policy organization. 

However, he says from what LPI is seeing, “Covid might be exacerbating the teacher shortage.”

“We know that teaching during this time is very difficult, you know, switching between hybrid and in person or doing both, depending on your school situation,” DiNapoli says. “And of course, there's health concerns for teachers too.”

DiNapoli says that in normal times, about 90% of the annual demand for teachers is influenced by people leaving the profession. 

“We've seen some early signs that pandemic teaching conditions could accelerate people leaving the profession either looking for different work or retiring early,” he says.

According to several surveys, including those from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and the National Education Association, DiNapoli says many educators are planning to retire early, take a leave of absence, or exit the profession entirely.

History of Teacher Shortages

In looking at past data, DiNapoli says almost every state has had a teacher shortage.

“There's been a long standing teacher shortage in the United States pre-COVID,” DiNapoli says. “For example, in the 2017-2018 school year, nearly every state reported shortages in high-need subjects like math, science and special education.”

DiNapoli says the final numbers won’t be known until the pandemic is in the rearview mirror. But he says his organization is in the process of doing calculations based on the most up-to-date data as well as using prior research to get a better picture of where teacher shortages are in the U.S. 

However, DiNapoli did provide some currently available numbers. 

According to U.S. Department of Education data for the 2020-2021 school year, 43 states are reporting shortages in math teachers, 42 in science teachers, and 44 in special education teachers.

And DiNapoli says the latest job numbers indicate an over 8% decrease in public school employment, “meaning students have access to about 676,000 fewer educators and school support personnel than they did at this time last year.”

He adds that many of these cuts are non-teaching positions, and that teacher layoffs have occurred or are anticipated, based on budget conditions, in a few states. 

The Pipeline is Drying Up, Especially When It Comes to Hiring Teachers of Color

Part of the issue with the shortage, DiNapoli says, is that there aren’t a lot of people entering colleges to become teachers.

“We know that between 2009 and 2017, about 340,000 fewer students were enrolling in educator preparation programs,” he says. “And we know that inequitable access to certified and experienced teachers has fallen along racial and socioeconomic lines.”

That racial disparity in college admissions means fewer people of color become teachers.

“We know that enrollment from the latest federal data at historically black colleges and universities is down by 5.5%, which is historically a rich source of well prepared and diverse teachers. And then community college enrollment is down 10%,” DiNapoli says. “And those community colleges are often pipelines for more diverse -- both economically and racially and ethnically diverse -- students.”

DiNapoli says that the pandemic has affected the numbers of students enrolling into colleges. He cites an August Census Bureau study that showed when colleges shifted to distance learning because of COVID-19, it created gaps in access to students of color. 

“The cost of college during this time is even a higher barrier, especially for students of color and low-income students. And so that is all affecting the pipeline,” he says.

Teacher Pay and Retention Is Only Part of the Problem

Former teacher Brandy Samberg says fixing the teacher shortage won’t solve all the problems in school districts. She says the entire education system is in need of help.

“As a parent, I want my kids to have amazing teachers and educators and love school. And as someone that used to love teaching, and still loves working with kids, it's heartbreaking to see just so many people disheartened and leaving and doing anything they can to get out,” she says.

Samberg says she doesn’t know what the answer is, but says in addition to raising teacher salaries, schools could stop prioritizing testing and provide more counselors. 

To read more about the national teacher shortages

The Economic Policy Institute
The teacher shortage is real, large and growing, and worse than we thought (Story/Data from March 2019)

The National Education Association
The Teacher Shortage Can Be Addressed — With Key Changes (Article from Oct/2020 on the EPI data)

The Virginia Education Association
Teacher Shortage is a Threat To Our Schools

The Learning Policy Institute
Sustainable Strategies for Funding Teacher Residencies: Lessons From California

Ian M. Stewart previously was the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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