Going back to school amid COVID-19 outbreaks means uncertainty and fear for students and teachers, but staying home presents problems too.


In Las Vegas, where more than 1 in 6 workers are now unemployed, Fernando Valenzuela decided to quit his job this summer. He’s one of nearly 4,300 substitute teachers in the Clark County School District earning roughly $100 per day, without sick leave or health coverage. 

Though Valenzuela, who filled a full-time teaching vacancy at the Nevada Learning Academy, earned a bit more — $120 a day — than the Clark County average, it was still not enough for him to brave the risks of working at a school during the escalating coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s frustrating,” Valenzuela said. “It’s been almost 20 years since our last raise. … As much as I love working with these kids, it’s not worth it to me. I’m 29. I’m healthy. But there’s still people dying out there at my age.”

Each year, the Clark County School District in southern Nevada relies on substitutes like Valenzuela to fill hundreds of teacher vacancies and cover day-to-day teacher absences. The district also recruits educators from overseas and brings recent retirees back to the classroom temporarily.

Those patchwork solutions, however, may be in jeopardy, as the ongoing pandemic and deepening recession throw new challenges at school districts trying to stanch teacher shortages across the country.

A potential exodus of older educators susceptible to the coronavirus and those with existing health problems may fuel already high turnover. A full third of teachers told Education Week they were somewhat or very likely to leave their job this year — compared with just 8% who leave the profession in a typical year.  Many substitutes also may quit. Now, new restrictions on foreign visas will make it harder for some states to import teachers from other countries to work in already hard-to-staff positions.

And for those teachers willing to return to the classroom — whether virtually or in person — pink slips may be coming later this year. The massive layoffs predicted at the start of the pandemic haven’t happened — yet. But experts say as the economic crisis decimates state tax revenue and forces states to slash budgets, it’s more and more likely the nation won’t have enough teachers to staff schools even once reopening is safe.

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“Without a [federal] rescue package, the layoffs are coming, even if they’re not happening right away in September,” said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington. “Across the country, school districts are wrestling with this now.”

The state of the workforce has long been shaky. Roughly 1 in 7 teachers transfers or quits after the conclusion of each academic year, while teacher prep programs have seen a steady decline in enrollment. 

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Educators’ worries about being exposed to the virus in the classroom aren’t theoretical. Nearly 1,200 students in Georgia and more than 2,000 students in Mississippi, along with hundreds of educators, have already been forced to quarantine because of outbreaks in schools.

In Clark County — the nation’s fifth-largest school district, with about 330,000 students — classes resumed Aug. 24 with just over 400 vacant teaching positions — down from about 750 in July, according to a district spokesperson. 

As of mid-August, 21 of the 25 largest school districts in the country, including Clark County, had decided to start the year with remote learning only, according to Education Week research. But Clark County leaders will revisit the decision every 30 days, worrying immunocompromised educators like Leslie Stevenson.

She’s one of many teachers in Las Vegas who filed paperwork with the district to document their existing health conditions, in hopes of claiming a permanent remote assignment when students return to school in person. For Stevenson, the death to COVID-19 of Nick Cordero, a 41-year-old Broadway actor, made the disease feel like more of a threat.

“He was a healthy, relatively young Caucasian male with money. I’m none of those things,” she said. “If he perished, why should I feel safe?”

A risk of losing more ground

In many places hit hardest by the pandemic, teacher shortages were already critical. In Mississippi, where some public health experts have warned that it’s too soon to return, almost two-thirds of the state’s school districts don’t have enough fully certified teachers or have so many at retirement age that they might not have enough in the near future, according to the state. 

Teacher salaries in Mississippi are among the nation’s lowest, and the threat of coronavirus has made enticing teachers to stay, much less come fill open jobs, even more arduous for principals who scrambled in the best of times to staff classrooms. 

In the Mississippi Delta, Superintendent Jermall Wright is desperate to find special education teachers for the schools he oversees in Yazoo City, which were taken over by the state along with schools in Humphreys County because of chronic underperformance. Wright managed to reduce many teacher vacancies when he came on board a year ago, but he still needs five special education teachers in order to be fully staffed this fall.

If Wright is unable to hire enough special education teachers before school starts in September, he could reassign some general-education teachers to inclusion classrooms, or, as a “last-ditch effort,” find educators on a temporary license.

Hiring educators with temporary licenses, which usually means they haven’t gone through a teacher training program, is already common in Mississippi and throughout the South. The school systems Wright oversees have some of the highest percentages of provisionally licensed educators in the state. 

“We run the risk of our students losing more ground than gaining, if we don’t do this the right way,” Wright said.

Risking lives for ‘near-poverty wages’

Substitute teachers have long been a Band-Aid in school districts desperate for teachers, but relying on subs can be bad for student achievement and now could add unexpected headaches.

Still, many districts are asking staffing agencies like Kelly Education services to recruit more substitutes ready to work at a moment’s notice this fall. Nicola Soares, president of Kelly Education, said about 20% of its substitute assignments in 40 states last year filled full-time teaching vacancies. This summer, she’s seen a huge uptick in demand.

“We’re being asked to double if not triple the size of our talent pool just so the openings can be covered,” Soares said. 

College students taking a gap year and unemployed workers looking to change careers have applied for the jobs. Soares said the national average for substitute pay hovered just below $100 a day, but some districts have increased their rates — even as they tighten budgets — to entice more temporary workers.

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Substitute teachers tend to have less training. In Nevada, substitutes need only 60 hours of college credit — not necessarily in education or the subject they’re teaching — to take the reins of a classroom. Also, because they also don’t receive paid sick days in many districts, they are often reluctant to stay home if they feel ill. And substitutes who move from school to school to cover for absent teachers could spread the coronavirus between buildings.

“You’re asking us to risk our lives for near-poverty wages,” said Valenzuela. “We don’t have sick days. … I don’t know a single substitute who can go half a month without their pay.”

In May, Clark County officials considered raises of up to 30% for substitutes. But after the state cut millions from its K-12 budget, Superintendent Jesús Jara indicated that the district may reverse course. Substitutes have gone 17 years with no raise, he acknowledged. “It’s still a priority, but right now we’re waiting on the final numbers on the budget.”

A threat of massive job losses

Just how many students will start the new school year without a fully licensed teacher remains unclear. Before the pandemic, education experts and civil rights activists had long expressed outrage that the kids most at risk of falling behind are more likely to be taught by inexperienced or untrained teachers. 

At the same time, many protested that high barriers for entering teacher preparation programs made it harder for states to recruit and train new teachers — especially people of color who are more likely to have graduated from high schools that did not offer challenging opportunities like advanced placement courses, or even have enough certified teachers for the classroom. The lack of strong instruction can derail candidates later as they try to pass exams required for entry to certain teacher prep programs.

Now 31 states, including Mississippi and Nevada, have loosened some assessment requirements for incoming teachers, in some cases permanently, to make it easier for teachers to get certified and to ease the hiring crunch to come.

Some schools of education in Mississippi saw an uptick in enrollment last spring after the state waived and then eliminated the Praxis Core, an exam measuring content knowledge in reading, writing and math, and ended the requirement that prospective teachers earn a score of at least a 21 on the ACT. More than 100 members of a summer alternate-route teachers prep program at the state’s largest historically Black college, Jackson State University, have already signed contracts to teach this semester, Jadministrators reported.

But even if more recruits start entering teacher preparation programs, they could end up with nowhere to go by next spring.

The country’s deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression has yet to hit most school districts, according to data compiled by the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. Fewer than a third of the 302 districts Edunomics researchers tracked had issued pink slips as of mid-August, and the ones that had gone out were often for nonteaching positions.

But Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab, said teacher layoffs may dominate headlines over the next several months as districts spend down their cash reserves and states start axing their budgets.

“I actually think it could be as early as late fall — depending on when we get some clarity on federal money,” Roza said.

During the last recession, between 2008 and 2010, public schools shed more than 120,000 teaching positions, according to school finance expert Michael Griffith of the Learning Policy Institute. It would have been worse if the federal government had not extended nearly $100 billion in aid to schools: Another 275,000 education jobs could have been lost.

Griffith notes that K-12 budgets reached their lowest point in 2010 — two years after the recession began. This time, he said, the reduction in state education budgets could be much deeper. “Without the intervention of the federal government, hundreds of thousands of teachers could lose their jobs,” he wrote.

In Washington, D.C., talks over another federal relief package and how much money to include for schools remain mired in partisan debate. Senate Republicans have pitched $70 billion for K-12 public and private schools, with much of it tied to conditions that they physically reopen. Democrats in the House of Representatives, meanwhile, included $58 billion for schools in the HEROES Act they passed in May. (Later, in June, Senate Democrats unveiled a separate proposal with $175 billion to help stabilize K-12 schools.)

“I would like to think we could somehow find a way to avoid teacher layoffs … especially in the context of needing more adults to help with the major needs that kids will have when they come back,” said Katharine Strunk, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University. But, she added, “unless there’s a huge federal infusion of money — which there should be — districts will have to think about layoffs.” 

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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