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A shortage of teachers and Covid-19 create a perfect storm for the education system



a small child sitting on a desk: Teacher Elizabeth DeSantis, wearing a face shield, instructs first graders during a reading class at Stark Elementary School on September 16, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut.


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Teacher Elizabeth DeSantis, wearing a face shield, instructs first graders during a reading class at Stark Elementary School on September 16, 2020 in Stamford, Connecticut.

  • Finding education workers is even more challenging during the pandemic.
  • Fear of contracting the virus is driving many teachers to retire early.
  • The Economic Policy Institute reports that as of September, public K-12 education employment is more than half a million jobs below its year-ago levels.

The debate over how and where to educate students, from preschool to university, has been among the fiercest fought throughout the pandemic. Nearly every solution presents challenges for parents, students and teachers alike.

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The Covid-19 crisis and an ongoing nationwide shortage of qualified teachers have created a perfect storm in the education system that may only worsen in the months to come.

Educators such as Cynthia Robles are feeling it firsthand.

Robles is a special education teacher at Roger Williams Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island, with more than two decades of experience. She is currently working in school, doing both in-person and remote learning, while helping to cover other classes during unassigned periods to make up for a lack of substitute teachers in the district.

“It’s truly a challenge every day. Teaching is challenging anyway, but with the lack of teachers in some rooms, and the rest of us having to kind of pick up the slack. … It’s exhausting. Honestly, it’s even heartbreaking,” Robles, a union member, said. “You sit back and you really look at these children. And you end the day with, ‘Did I give them everything they need?'”

The district is currently short some 100 teachers and could use an additional 100 to fill substitute needs, Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro said.

Educators are being forced to make tough decisions about their own health and safety, and that of their family members, simply by going to work.

Data from the American Federation of Teachers, the national labor union, shows that 1 in 3 teachers say the pandemic has made them more likely to retire¬†earlier than planned, particularly among those over age 50 and with more than 20 years’ tenure. The American Enterprise Institute projected that more than 18% of all public and private school teachers are in the 65 and older age group that is most vulnerable to the virus.

“When we have widespread possibility of illness, people who may take off for longer periods of time and we don’t have anyone to fill that opening, it has a domino effect,” Calabro said.

Providence Public Schools said it recently revamped its hiring practices to recruit external candidates for open teaching positions earlier in the hiring cycle, adding this school year began with fewer vacancies than years past. It maintains that extra precautions, including daily cleaning, additional custodial staff, face coverings and fresh air solutions were all put into place ahead of schools reopening. But more help is needed to accommodate in-person and virtual learning needs.

“The