The impact of teacher shortages, absenteeism and Covid-19 on schools


 

 

The world of education is always changing – the pendulum swings from schools having high achievement to low, positive morale to negative, overwhelming caseloads to manageable and on and on. But in the last few years, and particularly with the onset of Covid-19, instruction and morale have taken a huge hit for a lot of schools.

In the last several years fewer people have been pursuing jobs in education. Emma Goldberg reported in the New York Times in March 2021 that “the number of education degrees conferred by American colleges and universities dropped by 22 percent between 2006 and 2019, despite an overall increase in U.S. university graduates, stoking concerns about a future teacher shortage.” My own district, which had 11,600 teaching applicants in 2017, had only 5,500 in 2021.

In a survey conducted in January by the National Education Association, 55 percent of educators are considering leaving the profession earlier than intended – nearly 20 percent higher than when surveyed in August 2021. In October 2021 Leslie Gray Streeter wrote in the Washington Post “One in four American teachers reported considering leaving their job by the end of the last academic year.” A quick search for many school district job vacancies reveals an alarming number of vacancies. There are three unfilled teaching positions in my school which serves almost 1,200 students and nearly 150 openings in the district. The problem is real.

Meeting the needs of students under normal circumstances is no walk in the park. Teachers often have multiple classes that have students with specific learning needs – some may need a more intense level of direct instruction, modified assessments or instructional materials, reminders to stay on task, organizational support etc. High rates of staff absenteeism paired with a shortage of teachers and substitutes makes it nearly impossible to meet those needs.

One solution to staff absences is to combine classes, which means higher student-teacher ratios and reduced supervision. It’s common to see central office staff, school board members as well as parents volunteering to help prevent schools from switching to remote learning.

Another way schools handle this problem is for teachers to give up their planning period to cover classes which then contributes to greater teacher burnout perpetuating more staff absenteeism. Plus, when you have someone covering a class who teaches a different grade level and/or subject area, quality of instruction plummets or disappears altogether. Smaller student-teacher ratios and access to your content-area teacher are essential for kids to get the highest quality education.

Some folks are faring better than others in this pandemic. Damian Barr tweeted “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on superyachts. Some have just the one oar.” But many of us have faced trauma in some way or another throughout this pandemic whether it takes the form of illness, job loss, increased violence or alcohol/ drug use etc. Educators are working through their own mental health issues while trying to support children who are experiencing more significant mental health issues than ever before. In May 2021 nearly 30% of parents surveyed in a Gallup poll said their child was “experiencing harm to [their] emotional or mental health”, and schools across the country have seen an increase in student mental health issues. Dozens of kids in my district are in treatment programs or therapy and/or they have been hospitalized for suicidal ideation, PTSD, anxiety, depression etc.

All this to say, things are difficult in education right now. The ship must be righted, or we can expect to continue to see teachers leaving the field. This is a complex problem that will take time, sacrifice, creativity and who knows what else to solve, but one simple thing everyone can do to make a difference is to be kind, patient and supportive of your school staff so they will want to continue serving your children.

A native of Waynesboro, Leslie Woods is a graduate of Edmund Burke Academy and Valdosta State University. She was recently named middle School Counselor of the Year for the Williamson County, Tennessee School District.

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