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Staffing shortages continue to plague schools, data shows

Students walk through Forestdale Elementary School in Springfield, Va., on Aug. 22. Many school systems continue to face staffing shortages, according to national data released Tuesday. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

More than half of public school principals participating in a national survey reported staff shortages as classes started in August, according to federal data released Tuesday that offers another sign of persistent employee vacancies in schools.

Sixty percent of those grappling with the issue said they had faced open support-staff positions since the start of the pandemic, and almost 50 percent cited unfilled teaching jobs. Principals also reported losing positions for teachers and staff.

Teacher shortages were most common in special education and the elementary grades, followed by math and English as a second language or bilingual education, according to the results of the August survey done by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), an arm of the U.S. Education Department.

Principals also reported that they were short of transportation workers and custodians — along with mental health staff.

Nearly half of schools with vacancies lacked staff for mental health jobs, which became especially important during the pandemic with a rise in rates of depression and anxiety among students.

Elena Ashburn, a high school principal in Wake County, N.C., started the school year short by two teachers, which she said is unusual in her experience. Two vacancies might not sound like much, she said, but they are in hard-to-fill subjects — science and special education — and they take a toll on students.

“There’s a lot of competition for the talent,” she said.

As schools try to catch students up academically, instructional support employees are in demand. More than 40 percent of principals reporting staff shortages said they lacked academic interventionists, and 40 percent said they lacked tutors.

The principal is cleaning the bathroom: Schools reel with staff shortages

One major problem in hiring is too few candidates for each job, and in many cases candidates are not qualified, the survey showed.

Brian Fleischman, a principal in Overton, Neb., about two hours west of Lincoln, recalls that five years ago, he would get 50 to 100 applications for each elementary school teaching job that came open. This year, his opening for a second-grade teacher drew five applications.

“We were blessed,” he said. “We got a rock star.” But he said hiring is becoming “more and more competitive.”

Dan Domenech, executive director of the AASA, the national school superintendents association, said that while there is little hard data on staffing shortages, he hears school system leaders talk about them all the time.

He said that even last year, when staffing shortages were at a high in some areas, he did not see approaches like Florida’s — offering jobs to veterans without college degrees. Arizona is allowing college students to instruct children.

Even summer school programs faced staff shortages.

It’s different than it’s ever been, and it’s definitely having an impact on this school year,” Domenech said. “It’s not just teachers. It’s custodians, it’s cafeteria workers, the bus drivers, everybody.”

He called it disappointing as the nation’s schools make another attempt to return to pre-pandemic stability. “We were hoping that we would be able to get back to some semblance of normalcy,” he said, “but we’re not.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the pandemic and the political culture wars have made the last two years of teaching the toughest in modern times.

“We have a shortage of respect for educators,” she said in an email. “A shortage of the professional working conditions that allow teachers and staff to do their best for students. A shortage of pay for what is arguably the most important job in the world. And we are not going to fix one without fixing the others.”

More than 75 percent of principals found it difficult to hire teachers in special education, math, physical science and foreign languages, according to the NCES survey.

On the heels of the survey’s release, the Education Department announced new grants Tuesday totaling more than $60 million to help address the teacher shortage and invest in teacher pipeline and development programs across the country.

Wanted: Teachers. No training needed.

NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr said in a statement that 20 percent of respondents said they were understaffed before the pandemic.

The data is part of an NCES effort to provide up-to-date information about the pandemic’s effect on K-12 schools. It was collected from more than 900 schools, and the NCES labeled it experimental because of factors including a shorter data-collection window.

The pandemic’s impact on education

The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5. To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools. American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure.

Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules.

DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.