A SEVERE TEACHER shortage exacerbated by the COVID pandemic has California school districts increasing teacher pay, developing new hiring strategies and trying to ease teachers’ workloads by hiring more support staff, according to a report by the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit education research organization.

The persistent teacher shortage, coupled with higher-than-usual retirements and resignations during the pandemic, has district officials scrambling to fill classrooms this school year, even as additional state and federal funding gave them the ability to hire more staff.

The report, “Teacher Shortages During the Pandemic: How California Districts are Responding,” consists of a survey of district officials from eight large and four small school districts — Modoc Joint Unified, Upper Lake Unified, San Juan Unified, Elk Grove Unified, San Francisco Unified, Los Angeles Unified, Long Beach Unified, Santa Ana Unified, San Bernardino City Unified, Needles Unified, San Diego Unified and San Pasqual Valley Unified. The districts educate a combined 1 out of every 6 California students.

The report is a follow-up to “California Teachers and COVID-19: How the Pandemic Is Impacting the Teacher Workforce,” published by the Learning Policy Institute last March.

Two-thirds of the districts surveyed reported they have had more teacher vacancies than usual to fill this school year, and a more difficult time finding teachers to hire. As a result, schools have increasingly had to hire underprepared teachers working with intern credentials, permits or waivers instead of completing the coursework, clinical practice, tests and other requirements to earn a full teaching credential.

“The solutions that are available aren’t often the solutions we would want for our children — cutting classes and combining classes, or trying to fill classes with substitutes and teachers on emergency credentials who haven’t demonstrated competency in the subjects they are teaching,” said Desiree Carver-Thomas, one of the authors of the report. “What we would want is for classes to be filled with competent teachers that are experienced. Instead they are scrambling to find those people and are relying on strategies that aren’t necessarily ideal.”

Research shows that students who have access to fully qualified experienced teachers perform better academically than students who don’t, Carver-Thomas said.

Possible solutions

The report offered recommendations that researchers say would help increase the number of teachers in California classrooms:

  • School districts should increase teacher compensation by increasing wages, and offering stipends and bonuses, especially for hard-to-fill positions. They should develop their teacher pipeline by starting teacher residency programs and initiatives that recruit and train school staff to become teachers as they earn a credential. Districts should also continue to invest in teacher recruitment and add more staff to support teachers.
  • The federal government should make teaching more financially attractive by making college debt-free for educators and providing income tax credits and housing subsidies.
  • The state should implement a program to help teacher candidates navigate teacher preparation programs, credentialing requirements and funding opportunities. It should also invest in programs that allow students to begin teacher preparation at community colleges and complete it at a four-year institution. This could be especially helpful in rural areas that aren’t near a four-year university, but are served by a community college.
  • Universities should increase enrollment in teacher preparation programs, especially in high-demand fields.

Teacher burnout is one reason cited for resignations and retirements, according to district officials. In one large district, retirements in 2020-21 increased by 25 percent over the 2018-19 school year and leaves of absences increased by 50 percent.

Despite an overall need for teachers, the greatest demand still was for teachers credentialed to teach in the hard-to-staff areas of mathematics, science and special education, according to the report.

The teacher shortage is amplified because of an acute substitute shortage so severe that many schools are forced to merge classrooms, send administrators to teach in classrooms and in a few drastic cases, close schools for one or more days.

“In San Lorenzo USD, directors, principals, assistant superintendents, and the superintendent are in classrooms trying to support school sites,” said Superintendent Daryl Camp in the report. “Teachers are subbing during their prep periods way too much.”

In August and September, when the districts were surveyed, six still hadn’t filled 10 percent or more of their open teaching positions. One district had more than 25 percent of its vacant teacher jobs still open. Only one district reported fewer vacancies than it had at that time the previous year.

Impact on students

School district officials also expressed concern about how the instability of teacher vacancies and changing substitutes are affecting students’ well-being.

“A lot of districts want to prioritize student well-being, which is hard to do without a stable workforce,” Carver-Thomas said.

With only a limited number of candidates for jobs, many districts are focusing on retaining the teachers they have by hiring additional staff to help them in the classroom and improving the working conditions for teachers, according to the study. Several districts surveyed for the study increased teacher pay, while one large district focused on building its pool of substitute teachers by increasing daily pay rates for substitutes.

Rural districts, which generally have even fewer potentially eligible teachers in their communities than other districts, have struggled to attract teachers to their schools despite some offering signing bonuses and relocation stipends, Carver-Thomas said.

“Each district had its own strategy — from what we heard it’s a holistic set of strategies. They are doing everything they can, making classes smaller, hiring counselors, hiring instruction aides.”

Desiree Carver-Thomas, report co-author

One small district offered teachers an initial signing bonus, annual bonuses for each of four contract years and a stipend to move to the area. The district offered a $15,000 signing bonus and a $3,000 moving stipend to fill positions in high school mathematics and music, but had not received any applications for those jobs, according to the study.

Districts that can’t find enough teachers are using state and federal recovery dollars to hire classroom aides to reduce teachers workloads, as well as counselors, psychologists, social workers, instructional coaches and assistant principals to help students and, in turn, teachers. Districts are also investing in recruitment, hiring more human resources staff, hosting job fairs, streamlining their recruitment process and increasing their presence at virtual and in-person job fairs.

“Each district had its own strategy — from what we heard it’s a holistic set of strategies,” Carver-Thomas said. “They are doing everything they can, making classes smaller, hiring counselors, hiring instruction aides.”

The report acknowledges the state’s record investment in teacher preparation, retention and training over the last two years. The budget proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this month includes more than $54 million to recruit teachers and make it easier for them to earn a credential. Carver-Thomas said these funds can be used to support some of the report’s recommendations.

This story originally appeared in EdSource.