Across the United States, state education and district officials say the pandemic has intensified a longstanding teacher shortage to crisis levels.
As spikes in cases and exposures have forced more teachers to stay home, the shortage is among the main reasons that schools or whole districts have had to halt in-person instruction, often for weeks.
“It’s just such a ripple effect,” said Laura Penman, the superintendent of Eminence Community Schools, a tiny district in rural Indiana. The district had to briefly close its only elementary school in November because an infected educator had come into contact with several colleagues.
Desperate to stanch staffing shortfalls, districts are increasing pay for substitutes and even advertising for temporary positions on local billboards. Some states and districts have suspended college course requirements, or permitted abbreviated online training, for emergency substitute teachers.
Although stopgap solutions may be necessary during the pandemic, education experts say they could diminish the quality of in-person learning, further disrupting education for a generation of children.
Public school systems in the United States have been grappling with a shortage of full-time teachers for years. There is reduced education funding in many states, and one study before the pandemic reported that schools nationwide needed more than 100,000 additional full-time licensed teachers, particularly in science and special education. The coronavirus is vastly exacerbating that shortfall, experts say, by prompting many teachers to quit or retire early.
Education researchers said the pandemic teaching shortage was likely to intensify learning disparities, especially in high-poverty schools where experienced substitutes often chose not to work.
“It’s a disaster. Those kids who have already got the worst of Covid and its consequences are the ones who are going to face a larger lack of sufficient, and sufficiently qualified, teachers,” said Emma Garcia, an education economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. “It’s going to have negative consequences immediately and it’s going to take them longer to be able to catch up.”