How teacher shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic impact classrooms in the West

An American flag hangs in a classroom as students work on laptops in Newlon Elementary School in Denver early on Tuesday,
Aug. 25, 2020. The school is one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students are participating in remote learning. From Denver’s largest school district to small, rural districts elsewhere in the West, school staffing shortages are exacting a toll.

An American flag hangs in a classroom as students work on laptops in Newlon Elementary School in Denver early on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. The school is one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students are participating in remote learning. From Denver’s largest school district to small, rural districts elsewhere in the West, school staffing shortages are exacting a toll. (David Zalubowski, Associated Press)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — A year ago, schools labored to keep the doors open amid the COVID-19 pandemic that necessitated temporarily shifting to remote instruction when cases exceeded thresholds or even calling off school for a couple of days when administrators were unable to hire enough substitutes to fill in for ill teachers.

Fast forward a year and some schools are again struggling to stay open to deliver instruction and other services students need.

This time, with COVID-19 becoming a bit more manageable as vaccination has become available, a labor shortage is to blame.

School districts have raised substitute teacher pay and are offering stipends for substitutes that teach multiple days for their particular district. Schools are also paying certified teachers to fill in for absent teachers in their schools, which means a little more cash in their pockets but adds to their workloads.

Across the West, the staffing shortages are exacting a toll. The substitute teacher shortage is one factor but so is teachers taking personal time off to rest and regroup to tackle additional demands brought on by the pandemic and helping students, some of whom experienced learning loss when schools could not meet in person, get back on track.

'Difficult and draining'

Some schools have responded by simply calling off classes for a day or two. Others have shifted to remote learning.

Some, like Denver Public Schools, will start its weeklong Thanksgiving break early, closing its school on Friday and resume classes on Monday, Nov. 29.

In a letter to the school community, DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero acknowledged, "It's been another difficult and draining year" for students, families and "our dedicated staff, who are giving tirelessly to support our students while dealing with significant staffing shortages at work and often other strains at home related to the pandemic."

In Denver, families had ample notice to arrange child care or other activities during Friday's closure.

Elsewhere, parents have been caught off guard by sudden announcements of school cancellations due to substitute and staff shortages.

In Washington state, staffing shortages were further exacerbated by high numbers of staff asking for Fridays off to rest and regroup.

Several Utah school districts have raised substitute teacher salaries and offered stipends to subs who teach multiple days to entice more people to fill in but thus far, only one closed school for the day due to staffing shortages, said Lexi Cunningham, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association.

Grand County closed schools for 2 1/2 days at the start of the school year when 10 staff members at Grand County High School tested positive for COVID-19 and there were not enough substitutes to cover classes, said Superintendent Tayrn Kay.

Only the high school was impacted and after the brief closure, the mask-wearing requirement in place in Grand County's elementary schools was also implemented in the district's middle and high schools.

'Exhaustion and burnout'

Kay said the requirement will end at the start of winter break and will not be in place when students return to school in January, acknowledging there is mask-wearing fatigue.

"I'm happy for the opportunity for our students ages 5 to 11 to get vaccinated," she said.

On the other hand, Moab relies heavily on tourism so she has some angst about possible transmission from people visiting the area over the holiday break. Otherwise, the community has been dutiful about mitigation measures and has experienced a relatively low number of deaths compared to other similarly sized communities in Utah since the start of the pandemic.

The brief closure in September marked the only time this school year that the district had to shutter due to staffing shortages and "we've had no (schoolwide) test-to-stay events," although one classroom had three students test positive, Kay said.

Canyons School District is taking a different tack, announcing earlier this fall that it will observe one "remote Friday" during the months of November to April.

"The goal with remote Fridays is to support teachers in supporting students. Teachers are reporting increased rates of exhaustion and burnout due, in part, to such pandemic-related stressors as staffing shortages," the district said in a statement.

Utah schools largely returned to in-person learning in fall 2020. That was not the case in many parts of the country, so those schools are dealing with some of the issues Utah schools have had real-world experience with for more than a year and are more adroit at addressing staff shortages and other challenges presented by pandemic, Cunningham said.

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Marjorie Cortez

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