A record-breaking number of K-12 employees nationwide either left or lost employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Utah schools are still struggling to regain paraeducators (teacher aids), substitute teachers, and educators in mathematics and special education. Additionally, a study from the Pew Research Center found that fewer students across the country are completing education degrees.
The combination of these two trends is ringing alarms for education advocates, college students pursuing careers in teaching, and current Utah educators.
“Schools are already understaffed, and with all the vacant positions and the stress that puts on teachers, the outlook doesn’t look good,” said James Tobler, president of the Salt Lake Education Association.
Most schools nationwide turned to online and virtual learning in the initial months of the pandemic, and by April 2020, 48 states and four United States territories ordered or recommended keeping students and staff virtual through the rest of the school year, according to the Congressional Research Service.
When schools welcomed students back to their campuses, they were met with large staffing shortages in various sectors of education – positions which were not filled after many employees left during various lockdowns.
“[Substitutes] are in short supply, which results in pulling teachers from other classes when a staff member is ill or has a family emergency,” said Mary Cremer, a current first-grade teacher who has been teaching in Utah for over 30 years.
“When this happens, the entire school community is impacted by possibly not having enough staff to cover other needs during the school day such as lunchroom, recess monitors or specials classes.”
Educators change plans
Staffing issues and other adjustments upon returning post-lockdown caused many educators to report increased feelings of burnout and stress.
Many educators also report changes in their career plans due to these obstacles, with 55% of educators surveyed by GBAO, a research company, saying they plan to leave or retire from education sooner than planned because of the pandemic.
Tobler said this change in teachers’ plans is concerning, and reason to implement more enticing benefits to retain teachers to help them feel supported. However, those steps are not being taken, Tobler added.
“We’re starting to see a trend where rather than supporting teachers and increasing salaries, schools are lowering the bar to hire their teachers,” Tobler said. “We shouldn’t be lowering the bar; we should be raising the bar.”
In Utah, many school districts currently employ teachers who are reportedly unlicensed. The largest percentage of unlicensed educators – 33% – exist in Daggett School District, followed by Piute County School District with 23.5% and Duchesne County School District with 21.3%, according to the Utah Legislative Auditor General’s Office.
Teachers can be hired without a teaching license and work as a teacher if they complete a certain amount of training and receive specific certificates required by the school district.
Tobler said raising teacher salaries can retain more licensed and qualified teachers and entice licensed educators to fill shortages.
“Schools need to pay salaries that attract and retain employees. Teacher salaries are not [in proportion] with the level of education that is required,” he said, explaining that prospective students must attain a bachelor’s degree, a teaching certificate and complete six months of student teaching.
“If education really is a top priority, we must prioritize teacher salaries to attract and retain the best candidates we can,” Tobler said.
Interest in education careers declining
Another concern is the declining number of college students who are pursuing careers in education.
According to Pew research, only 4% of total degrees awarded in colleges and universities across the U.S. were in education during the 2019-2020 school year. In the 2000-2001 school year, education degrees made up 8% of the total.
Looking further back, the decline becomes more pronounced. Education was the most popular field in the 1970-71 school year, making up 21% of total degrees granted.
Natalie Fawson, 21, is an education major and junior at the University of Utah, with hopes of becoming an elementary school teacher. She doesn’t think the pandemic is solely to blame for teaching shortages, and said problems in education existed well before the pandemic.
“[People] are saying, ‘Wow, teachers are so overworked right now.’ Teachers have always been overworked, but because of the pandemic, they are overworked more,” Fawson said.
Fawson said her professors in the education department have made comments to her regarding the lack of students in their specific courses, jokingly telling Fawson to tell her friends to enroll in the program to get more students into teaching.
“I think if teaching paid more, a lot more people would be willing to do it,” Fawson said. “There are a lot of really cool, good people who would make really awesome teachers, but teachers aren’t paid enough. I think that’s a big reason why people are not enrolled.”
While Fawson is extremely worried about potential burnout, she said her biggest concern is the possibility that – as a teacher – she may not be able to do everything she wants for her students due to insufficient school funding.
“Schools aren’t funded enough to let every kid be on a soccer team, or stuff like that, and that’s really sad,” Fawson said. “But those little opportunities really help kids, so it’s hard. I feel like all a teacher can do is ask for more funding.”
Fawson argues that if voters were more active in board of education elections and voted for candidates who aimed to secure more funding for education, that it would be parallel to giving teachers a raise.
“Schools in general, if they were funded more, [teachers] wouldn’t have to be pulling from their own pockets,” Fawson said. “It would almost be like getting a raise, just if a school was funded more.”
Tobler said the strongest indicator for student success is having a strong teacher in the classroom, and that there are steps available to entice more students to pursue a future in teaching.
“Education is an incredibly rewarding profession,” he said. “We must make education more attractive by supporting teachers with additional staff and increasing salaries.”
Cremer agreed, saying higher wages would make teaching a more enticing profession.
“To entice more students to pursue a career in teaching, teachers need to be paid a living wage. It is a valuable, honorable profession that impacts our entire population,” Cremer said.
Salt Lake Community College offers an associate degree in education, a two-year program that allows students to transfer to a four-year teaching program. Interested students can find more information on available education programs by visiting the college’s Education Department web page.