When hiring recently for an elementary school teacher position, Superintendent Randy Squier noticed far fewer applicants than his upstate New York school district would normally receive.
"We would often see 120 applicants for an elementary position. Now we're seeing 40," Squier, superintendent of the Coxsackie-Athens Central School District in Coxsackie, told ABC News.
Keith Marty, superintendent of Missouri's Parkway School District in suburban St. Louis, has had a similar experience during the pandemic, especially at the administrative level.
While schools have weathered temporary disruptions like widespread staffing absences due to the omicron variant and ongoing substitute shortages, school leaders are especially worried about long-term staffing needs.
"I think everybody is concerned about what we're hearing about the pending teacher shortages, which are very concerning when I think about my grandchildren and the future of public education," said Marty, who has nine grandchildren between the ages of 1 and 13. "I worry about the future of our ability to have quality leaders, administrators as well as classroom teachers."
Alarms about teacher shortages predate the pandemic. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, recent studies have "suggested a large decrease over the past decade in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, an important source of teacher supply, and projected a substantial national teacher shortage over the next decade." The National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education noted in a 2016 report on teacher shortages that need may vary regionally, by subject matter and school, with "urban, rural and high poverty schools typically have a harder time attracting and keeping teachers."
The stress of the pandemic is likely to only exacerbate challenges in recruiting teachers, Desiree Carver-Thomas, a researcher and policy analyst for the education research group Learning Policy Institute, told ABC News.
A recent report from the Learning Policy Institute that interviewed administrators at 12 school districts in California at the beginning of the school year found that "increases in teacher retirements and resignations, alongside a limited supply of candidates and a need for more teaching positions, led to unusually high levels of vacancies in several districts."
"Districts were eager to reduce class sizes and provide more personalized learning environments and provide all the additional supports that students were going to need coming back into the classroom after more than a year of disrupted learning," Carver-Thomas said. "And so there were a lot of positions that they were eager to create and fill, which could also pose a challenge, since there still aren't as many fully credentialed teachers coming into the profession as are needed."
Heightened scrutiny and increased demands on educators during the pandemic may also be a factor, particularly for school leaders, Marty said.
"I think leadership positions for those who might have thought that was attractive, I think are finding staying in the classroom or staying where they're at may be a better situation," Marty said. "I think COVID has made that even more profound."
Focus on pay
Amid the omicron surge, when teacher absences spiked, keeping schools in person and classrooms staffed has been an "all-hands-on-deck effort" at Highline Public Schools in Burien, Washington, south of Seattle, Superintendent Susan Enfield told ABC News.
For January and February, the district has increased the prorated daily rate teachers receive for giving up their prep periods to cover for another colleague from about $36 to $100, Enfield said. The increase was intended to "incentivize folks to help out when needed, but also just to signal how grateful we are and acknowledge that it's no small thing to give up your preparation time," she said.
In discussions on attracting and retaining teachers, compensation is often at the forefront.
"It's unaffordable to become a teacher because teacher wages really lag behind other professionals, but teachers still have to pay to go to college and become credentialed, so that debt and salary equation isn't favorable," Carver-Thomas said.
The average public school teacher's salary was $63,645 for the 2019-2020 school year, federal data shows.
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced in December that her administration this year will pursue a 7% raise for all education personnel and a $10,000 bump in the base educator salary levels, citing an increase in teacher vacancies during the pandemic and the need to make the state salary more competitive. A bill that would increase the salary for licensed teachers was introduced in the state Senate last month.
School districts are finding they have to start their searches earlier, and increase salaries as they compete for a smaller pool of candidates.
"What it's created is a little competition among schools, and that eventually evolves to salaries," Squier said. "We're fortunate, even as a rural district, we have one of the highest salary schedules in the Albany region, so that helps people at least look at us. But that's unsustainable over time."
Marty said his large Missouri school district has looked at increasing compensation for substitute teachers amid a smaller pool during the pandemic.
"At one time we had almost 500 people that were in the pool for subs, and that's now down to around 325," he said. "A lot of substitutes are retired teachers ... and they have, because of health reasons or concerns, have decided not to sub any longer."
Grisham herself actually stepped in as a substitute at a Santa Fe elementary school last month to call attention to the shortages.
Some California school districts have focused on streamlining their hiring processes to respond to applicants more quickly amid the competition, said Carver-Thomas, though she noted the issue only highlights the need for states to expand the labor market.
"I think there's a lot that districts can do individually, but it really is up to the state to increase the pool of qualified teachers so that we don't have a situation where districts are simply poaching from each other, which doesn't end up serving our students," she said. "What we know from the research is that often it's those schools serving more students of color, more low-income families, that will get the short end of the stick in those situations where they're not able to fill their positions because other districts are more competitive."
Expanding the pipeline
To expand the pool of qualified teachers, some districts have launched residency, or "grow your own," programs that partner with local colleges and often include a commitment to teach in the district for a set number of years.
"What we heard from some districts is that because of the pandemic they started to look into teacher residencies or start to launch their own that they hope will kind of see them through in the coming years," Carver-Thomas said. "At least in California, funding for teacher residencies has really ramped up in the past couple years, which couldn't have come at a better time."
The programs can help fill high-need subject areas. At Highline, the district launched a special education teacher program last school year that is affiliated with Western Washington University. It joins a bilingual teaching fellows program that began several years ago.
"Dual language teachers and special education teachers are our most difficult teaching positions to fill," Enfield said. "So creating a 'grow your own' program was a great way for us to create an ongoing pipeline."
Much attention is on Tennessee, which last month became the first state in the country to register teaching as an apprenticeship, establishing a permanent program that allows people to gain a teaching license for free. The program could serve as a model for others states to launch similar programs with federal approval to address teacher shortages, state leaders said.
New York state needs some 180,000 new teachers over the next 10 years to meet the workforce need, according to Gov. Kathy Hochul. As part of efforts to close that gap, Hochul announced last month that the state is creating a teacher residency program that would match funding for districts to launch their own residency programs with local colleges for graduate-level candidates. The state also plans to expand alternative teacher certification programs, in which aspiring teachers apprentice in districts while pursuing a master's degree, "to make it easier and more appealing for professionals in other careers to become teachers," the governor's office said.
Squier sees an "untapped pool" of candidates in professionals who want to enter education, but that the credentialing process could become more streamlined.
"How can we make it easier for them to become certified and get them into the schools and teaching?" he said. "We have to do more with filling that pipeline of people who want to become teachers, especially teachers of color and more male teachers."
Retention is a key component in addressing staffing issues, as low turnover helps reduce the demand for new teachers.
As schools returned to the classroom during the pandemic, some districts have focused on easing the workload of teachers through smaller class sizes, having more academic coaches at school sites and hiring more support staff like social workers and psychologists to meet student needs, Carver-Thomas said.
"Teacher surveys have shown that during this time stress has been a major factor driving teachers leaving the profession, and so districts are thinking about how to reduce that stress on teachers," she said.
At Highline Public Schools, Enfield said they haven't seen a "significant exodus" of staff during the pandemic so far, but are thinking about the "long game."
"There is a lot of talk right at the national level, on social media, around teachers leaving, superintendents leaving, principals leaving. People are tired," she said. "We're trying to invest in adult wellness and supporting our staff and listening to ways that we can help out."
One part of that has been hiring more counselors across the district. This school year, the district hired nearly a dozen school counselors using federal pandemic relief funds to ensure that each elementary school had a full-time counselor. The district will use increased state funding for counselors in high-need districts to continue to fund the positions, Enfield said.
"That was a strategic investment that also signaled to our staff and our community that we recognize that we are going to likely have students with greater needs, and we don't want more of the responsibility for meeting those needs to fall on our teachers alone," she said.
Promoting the profession
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, now more than ever, educators also need to take this time to promote teaching as a career, school leaders said.
"We should be honest about the challenges facing our educators today and, at the same time, continue to celebrate the wonders of the profession," Enfield said. "It still is a magnificent profession and a great job and people will continue to choose to go into teaching because it's what they're called to do."
Marty voiced a similar sentiment, saying, "It's a wonderful career and I think we have to try to market it as that way."
Teachers are also in the unique position of having future educators in their classroom. Squier said he was inspired to become a teacher after hearing his high school algebra teacher talk about how much she loved her profession.
"We all have a part to play in fixing the teacher shortage," Squier said. "I think it starts at home in our own schools and trying to show our students that this is a great profession."