NEW YORK (NewsNation) — As children return to the classroom for the third year since the COVID-19 pandemic started, staffing continues to fall short.
The 2022-2023 school year is underway in some parts of the nation, and many school districts are scrambling to ensure that students return to classrooms with someone there to educate them.
Nationwide, public schools are facing difficulty retaining and hiring new teachers. This comes as many teachers are on their way out of the classroom, blaming burnout from the pandemic and low pay for the mass exodus.
“It’s not going to stop schools from opening, but it may create less margin for error. in the case of teachers being sick or staff being sick as the year goes on,” said Dennis Roche, president of Burbio, a data service that measures and tracks school operations and openings.
There is no national database that precisely tracks exactly how many U.S. classrooms are short of teachers for the 2022-2023 school year. State and district level reports have detailed staffing gaps that stretch from the hundreds to the thousands, The Washington Post reported.
According to the Nevada State Education Association, about 3,000 teaching jobs remained unfilled across the state’s 17 school districts as of early August. In a January report, the Illinois Association of Regional School Superintendents found that 88 percent of school districts statewide were having “problems with teacher shortages” — while 2,040 teacher openings were either empty or filled with a “less than qualified” hire. And in the Houston area, the largest five school districts are all reporting that between 200 and 1,000 teaching positions remain open, the Washington Post reported.
“Certainly, there’s been reports teachers have had a very difficult time during COVID with all of the disruptions and all the different things that have gone on in the classroom,” she said. “So, it’s not necessarily a job that is super in demand.”
Experts advise increasing the starting salary for new teachers and raising the pay for veteran educators would help to stop the rush out the door.
It’s not just teachers leaving the classroom.
“We’re already seeing some reporting out of Los Angeles that they’re expecting to lose, you know, 10 to 20,000 students compared with last year,” said Alex Spurrier of Bella Education Partners.
More than one in five New York elementary schools had fewer than 300 students last year, an analysis by Chalkbeat and The Associated Press shows. In Los Angeles, that figure was over one in four. In Chicago, it has grown to nearly one in three.
The pandemic accelerated enrollment declines in many districts as families switched to homeschooling, charter schools and other options. Students moved away or vanished from school rolls for unknown reasons.
“Some families might be concerned that their kid is behind in reading, others might be worried about their child’s physical safety,” Spurrier said.
Across the U.S., COVID-19 relief money is helping to subsidize growing numbers of big-city schools with small numbers of students.
As part of President Joe Biden’s “American Rescue Plan” states and public schools were given billions to safely reopen and provide academic support to communities recovering from the pandemic. Underprivileged schools got the most money where the need is the greatest for teachers and programming.
“I don’t think the story right now is schools don’t have money; they have a lot of money,” Roche said.
But when the money runs out in a few years, officials will face a difficult choice: Keep the schools open despite the financial strain, or close them, upsetting communities looking for stability for their children.
Some urban school districts that are losing students, including Denver, Indianapolis and Kansas City, Missouri, are considering school closures. Earlier this year, the Oakland, California, school board voted to close several small schools despite furious protests.
In Los Angeles and New York City, officials say they’re focused on luring students back into the system, not school closures.
But federal relief money will run out soon: districts must budget that money by September 2024. When it does, districts may be hard-pressed to keep all of their small schools afloat.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.