Some American public school districts are facing teacher shortages so severe that educators in Minneapolis and Sacramento, California, went on strike recently, demanding officials address the crisis.
Researchers and unions agree that teacher shortages predated COVID-19, but they said the pandemic exacerbated the problem.
"We saw schools closing down in January, not because of COVID itself, but because they didn't have enough educators for the students to be safely in the buildings. And so we saw some schools going back to virtual learning because of the shortages," Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, a teacher labor union with nearly 3 million members, told ABC News.
Two of the most common factors driving the crisis are low pay and working conditions, which get worse as shortages become more severe.
Teacher's salaries have been degrading since the 1990s, with teachers now making about 20% less than other college-educated professionals, even when you take into account the shorter school year, Desiree Carver-Thomas, a researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, told ABC News.
One researcher even predicted that the crisis will get worse if teachers' issues are not addressed. "We're going to have severe shortages, particularly in the tougher schools, and it's going to have a negative impact [on schools and education in the U.S.]," Richard Ingersoll, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading expert on America's teaching workforce, told ABC News. Ingersoll warned, "I'd like to see the solution being to improve the working conditions [and] improve the pay, but often, that's not the one that we turn to, and Band-Aids really aren't going to fix it."
"My guess is this is going to turn into a crisis. We're going to have large numbers of schools which are not adequately staffing significant numbers of their classrooms," he said.
Teachers are overworked and overwhelmed, and are often called to do things they are not qualified for to fulfill students' social and emotional needs. Students are suffering now in schools with not enough educators or mental health professionals to fulfill their needs, Pringle said.
Research released by the Economic Policy Institute in February found that the number of people employed in public K-12 elementary and secondary schools fell by 4.7% between fall 2019 and fall 2021, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
According to the EPI report, nearly every state has experienced "substantial losses" in local public education employment because of the pandemic. The largest declines have occurred in Alaska, a 17.5% decline; Vermont, a 11.6% decline; and New Mexico, a 10.7% decline.
There are currently 567,000 fewer educators in America’s public schools than there were before the pandemic, the NEA said.
"I have no doubt that by the end of this year that number will grow significantly," Pringle said.
Pringle said the number of college students enrolling in teacher preparation programs is in steady decline, with the industry looking at annual shortfalls of around 100,000 just due to fewer numbers of students going into teaching.
This crisis could still get worse, Pringle warned. In an NEA survey published in February, nearly 55% of its members said they plan on leaving the profession earlier than planned.
As more teachers leave schools, more stress and a higher workload is placed on those still working. Of NEA members surveyed, 74% said they have had to fill in for colleagues or take on more duties due to staff shortages and 80% said unfilled positions have led to more work obligations.
Ingersoll said there are two ways that this crisis can be resolved: either increase the supply of teachers or improve the working conditions, including pay.
To increase the supply of teachers, you can make it easier for people to become teachers by lowering the bar, through things like expediting entry into teaching through alternative routes, including teacher preparation programs, or you can recruit teachers from overseas.
The Economic Policy Institute wrote in its report that raising pay and using federal relief funds to invest in the education workforce is "critical to solving staffing shortages."
"Public officials should seize this moment of greater fiscal flexibility to begin making the reforms needed to attract, keep safe and retain high-quality teachers and support staff," said David Cooper, co-author of the report and director of EPI’s Economic Analysis and Research Network.
Cooper added, "That means raising pay, enacting strong COVID protections, investing in teacher development programs and finding ways to support part-time and part-year staff when school is not in session."
Carver-Thomas said some states are developing service scholarships or loan forgiveness programs for teachers. California has a Golden State Teacher grant program in exchange for commitment to serve in certain high need subjects and locations.
Some states are implementing a residency program where a resident apprentices under a teacher for a full year while they are earning their credential with a partnering university and they commit to teaching in the district for a certain number of years after the residency program, Carver-Thomas said.
Carver-Thomas said the programs California is implementing offer a glimmer of hope.
"The investments the state has been making are actually beginning to make a difference in the teacher supply pipeline," Carver-Thomas said. "There's still aways to go, but there's sort of that evidence that these investments can turn around the conditions in state."