Carina McGee, a high school teacher in the Aiken County Public School District in South Carolina, expected to teach until retirement age. But just three years after beginning her career, she’s reevaluating whether she made the right decision.
“Everything that has come with COVID, it has just been an absolute nightmare. I have been so much more overwhelmed and exhausted and just beaten down,” said McGee, 24. “I thought I would retire when I was like 65 from teaching, and now I’m considering leaving within the next two years.”
It has been difficult to staff classes at McGee’s school. Teachers have been absent to take care of sick family members, or they’ve been sick themselves, she said. Substitutes have been hard to come by. As a result, McGee said, she and her colleagues’ workloads have tripled. They’ve had to prepare lessons for both students in the classroom and those learning remotely, monitor classes without substitutes and forfeit their planning periods. Her principal even has covered some classes while waiting for a substitute.
The latest surge of the coronavirus has strained an already vulnerable K-12 workforce nationwide, causing teachers to miss more days. Many school officials say they are struggling to find enough substitutes to cover classrooms. Some schools have increased pay for teachers and substitutes, asked students’ parents to fill in as subs or reluctantly shifted to remote learning.
For temporary relief, governors and leaders in some states have instituted policies to ease substitute requirements, while lawmakers in at least 13 states are busy hammering out long-term solutions to teacher shortages.
“My guess is, as the economy improves, there's going to be a big surge in teacher attrition of beginners and of retirements,” said Richard Ingersoll, a teacher workforce expert and professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. “There’s going to be lots of places with difficulties if this hypothesis I have happens.”
Ingersoll also warned that some state lawmakers and districts might be tempted to lower standards “just to get a warm body in the classrooms” as a quick fix.
Some state officials, hearing the outcry from school administrators and teachers, have exercised their power to alleviate the labor challenges.
Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a measure in late December that allows secretaries, paraprofessionals and other school staff to work as substitute teachers until the end of the school year. In mid-January, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, signed an executive order allowing local school boards to make it easier for retired educators to return to the classroom. In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an order directing state agencies to “create mechanisms” for state employees to serve as substitutes in order to keep schools open.
In Kansas, the state Board of Education passed an emergency declaration in mid-January removing the requirement that substitutes have at least 60 credit hours from a college or university. Instead, anyone 18 or older can apply for a substitute license if they have a high school diploma and pass a background check. The rule expires June 1.
New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham encouraged state workers and the National Guard to help out by becoming licensed substitute teachers or child care workers. Recently, Lujan Grisham herself signed up to volunteer as a substitute teacher at an elementary school.
In some states, lawmakers have proposed increasing teacher pay, easing eligibility requirements for substitute teachers, lifting limits on the number of days retired teachers can work, and creating programs to grow the teacher workforce.
For example, in Mississippi, which needs 3,000 teachers, the state Senate unanimously passed a bill that would increase teacher salaries by an average of $4,700 over the next few years. Nebraska lawmakers are considering using federal dollars to give teachers a one-time stipend, while in South Dakota they are discussing a measure to raise salaries.
But recent research indicates that stress, even more than low pay, is what pushes teachers out the door. In a December 2020 survey of 1,000 former public school teachers, stress was cited nearly twice as often as insufficient pay as the reason for leaving the profession. The pandemic only has made things worse.
“The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have exacerbated what were high stress levels pre-pandemic by forcing teachers to, among other things, work more hours and navigate an unfamiliar remote environment, often with frequent technical problems,” the RAND Corporation concluded.
In a subsequent RAND survey of a similar number of teachers, conducted in late January and early February 2021, 1 in 4 respondents—and half of those who identified as Black—reported they would likely leave their jobs at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Among all employed adults, the figure was 17%. “Frequent job-related stress, feelings of burnout, and symptoms of depression appear to be nearly universal among teachers,” the researchers wrote.
Elizabeth Steiner, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and co-author of the report, said there is an ongoing survey to update the findings. She added that while the intent to leave doesn’t mean that teachers will leave, the survey raised red flags.
“A lot of the focus is on teachers wanting to leave, but I think the important conversation is how can everyone work together to make teaching a more appealing profession, a better profession and a less stressful profession people want to be in,” Steiner said.
In his previous research, Ingersoll has found that teacher retention, not recruitment, is the primary challenge for schools. “It’s not that we make too few teachers, we lose too many.”
For Tonya Wassenberg, who has been principal at Laurel Ridge Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia, for eight years, this year has been the most challenging test.
On any given day, she typically has between 10 and 20 teachers absent of about 85 instructional staff, which includes 23 instructional assistants. Prior to the pandemic, Wassenberg recalled needing only about one or two substitutes on a typical day.
Mondays and Fridays were the most frequent days she would need substitutes, but also the “hardest days to find subs,” she said. In the past, teachers would come in sick rather than pass their lesson plans to someone else.
During the pandemic, the Fairfax County school district has used central office and management staff as substitutes, hired college students and increased substitutes’ pay, which has been helpful, Wassenberg said.
The shortages have forced some schools and community members across the country to take unconventional approaches to fill positions. In Oklahoma, Moore Public Schools called in the local police department to cover classes at three elementary schools. An Oklahoma City bank said it would cover the costs of its 21 employees to become certified substitutes and pay them to work two days a month as subs, and its CEO also filled out an application to volunteer. Some school districts, such as Caddo Parish Schools in Louisiana, are asking parents to jump in as substitutes.
At Garcia Middle School in San Antonio, Texas, Principal Mark Lopez said librarians and administrative team members had to cover classes such as dance and history because so many teachers were absent. Other schools, lacking the resources to stay open, have had to transition to remote learning because of staffing shortages and high COVID-19 positivity rates.
As the pandemic wears on, it may be harder to create a pipeline of teachers and substitutes because many think they are at high risk of catching the virus in school, said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association.
In December, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that “multiple studies have shown that transmission within school settings is typically lower than—or at least similar to—levels of community transmission.”
Nevertheless, Thomas said, many of his members worry about overcrowded classrooms and poor ventilation. Some teachers have been asked to still teach even if they’re sick or tested positive for COVID-19, Thomas said.
“We have district leaders that are asking our classroom teachers, ‘Well, can you still teach online from home while you're sick?’ ‘If you're asymptomatic, can you come in after a few days?’” Thomas said. “Those are the positions we're putting our educators in because of the spread of this virus in our community. This is a real situation that is going to make too many people second guess whether they made the right career choice.”
Megan Boren, program manager at the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit organization focused on improving public education and policy for its 16 member states, said it will take several policy changes to elevate the teaching profession. She argued that legislation should support teacher preparation and recruitment, rather than soften the requirements for teachers or substitutes.
“The teacher shortage issue really isn't just an education issue. It's not just affecting our kids ages 5 to 17,” Boren said. “It is a major workforce issue that will, if not solved, have a very detrimental effect on the ability for localities and states to provide the workforce that will bring in industry and businesses and allow for a thriving economy.”