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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 this fall, 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 in Las Vegas and elsewhere. A full third of teachers told Education Week they were somewhat or very likely to leave their job this year — compared to just 8 percent 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, including Nevada, to import teachers from the Philippines and 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.

“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 (CEDR) at the University of Washington. “Across the country, school districts are wrestling with this now.”

Already, the state of the workforce was shaky. Roughly one in seven teachers transfers or quits after the conclusion of each academic year, while teacher prep programs have seen a steady decline in enrollment.

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 this week 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 of Nick Cordero, a 41-year-old Broadway actor, to Covid-19 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?”

teacher shortages
A sign announces that the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts is closed, Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Clark County school trustees cited fears of spreading the coronavirus and unanimously decided to begin the 2020-21 school year using distance education. Credit: AP Photo/John Locher

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 to 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.

Related: After years of inaction, Delta teacher shortage reaches ‘crisis’ levels

The consequences if he doesn’t find them could be devastating for kids already far behind. In Yazoo City, in 2018-19, fewer than 7 percent of children with disabilities were proficient on reading and math exams, less than one-third of the state average. Worried about how students were already starting from a dismal baseline, Wright had hoped to place two teachers, serving a mix of children with and without disabilities, in the district’s in-person and online classrooms. Having students with disabilities learn in general education classrooms, rather than isolating them in separate classrooms, is a strategy that research says can give children receiving special education services a better shot at graduating from high school and better academic success. But his plan will be an uphill battle if he can’t find enough teachers.

“It’s beyond concerning,” he said.

Parent Donjala Smith-Thomas said she’s spent the summer playing the “waiting game,” trying to find out if a teacher trained to support students with disabilities will be there this fall to work with her son, a fifth-grader in Yazoo City schools. Her son has Asperger’s syndrome, and he struggled without full access to services this past spring. Even as the school makes a bid to return to normal, she feels like she’s losing the fight.

“I just know in my heart he may fall behind, based on what the school provides him,” Smith-Thomas said.

With school set to start in September, she wonders if new hires will have enough time to get their bearings, before students return. But at this point, a certified special education teacher facing a time crunch might be the best-case scenario.

$100 a day: The average pay for a substitute teacher

If Wright is unable to hire enough special education teachers, 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.

Last year, the superintendent tried to shore up such teachers’ skills with additional training, rather than leaving them to figure out how to serve some of the neediest kids in the state on their own. The district partnered with William Carey University to provide teacher prep courses in town, so teachers wouldn’t have to commute to the campus located almost three hours away.

This year, with distance learning, such efforts have become even more critical — and will prove even more consequential as students try to make up for missed time.

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

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 percent 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.

“Unless there’s a huge federal infusion of money — which there should be — districts will have to think about layoffs.”

Katharine Strunk, Michigan State University

Substitute teachers tend to have less training. In Nevada, substitutes only need 60 hours of college credit — not necessarily in education or the subject they’re teaching — to take the reins of a classroom. They also don’t receive paid sick days in many districts, so 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 percent 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.”

Related: Can putting the least-experienced teachers in the highest-risk schools ever result in success?

In districts that are especially strapped for teachers, it’s not uncommon for recruiters to look overseas for help with their teaching vacancies.

Though their numbers total less than 10,000 nationwide, educators from other countries often fill classroom positions where shortages concentrate, including math, science and special education, said Lora Bartlett, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who wrote “Migrant Teachers,” a book about how American schools import labor.

But recruiting for those positions came to a halt in June, when President Donald Trump suspended many worker visas through the end of this year, blaming competition for jobs during the recession.

“I’m praying really, really hard that they will really believe that teachers are essential workers and allow us to go there.”

Edna Posadas-Ingles, a special education teacher in the Philippines who had planned to teach in Nevada this year

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak has pleaded for teachers to be exempted. His letter to the White House in July noted that Clark County had already extended offers to 95 foreign teachers. Eighty-eight of them would have filled special education vacancies.

“These teachers were scheduled to arrive in our State as early as this month and begin instruction in the upcoming school year,” Sisolak wrote. “However, unless immediate action is taken to exclude these teachers from the suspension, additional students will be deprived of licensed and highly qualified teachers.”

Edna Posadas-Ingles is one of the foreign teachers waiting to purchase a flight to Las Vegas. The 45-year-old has worked with students with disabilities for nearly two decades. She resigned from her position at a rural, private school in the Philippines after accepting an offer from Clark County. Her country’s stay-at-home order, now entering its fifth month, also prevented Posada-Ingles from finishing her doctoral program in special education.

teacher shortages
Edna Posadas-Ingles tutors some of her former students while her home country, the Philippines, remains in quarantine. The Clark County School District in southern Nevada recruited Posadas-Ingles to teach students with disabilities this fall, but now, due to new visa restrictions, she can’t come. Credit: Edna Posadas-Ingles

She recalled the exact date — June 24 — when she learned of Trump’s visa ban and shared the news with her family of six.

“It really felt like my American dream was crushed right in front of me,” Posadas-Ingles said. “I couldn’t help but ask, ‘What does my future hold now?’ I felt so sad, so devastated. … Now I’m floating with no proper source of income.”

Still, she kept her thoughts on students in Clark County.

“The families of children with special needs are waiting for us,” Posadas-Ingles said. “I’m praying really, really hard that they will really believe that teachers are essential workers and allow us to go there.”

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, JSU administrators reported.

“You’re asking us to risk our lives for near-poverty wages.”

Fernando Valenzuela, a substitute teacher in Las Vegas

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.

Related: How deep coronavirus school budget cuts are expected to harm student achievement

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.”

For now, more schools are trying another last resort when qualified teachers are hard to come by: virtual classrooms in which teachers use technology like webcams and other software to provide remote instruction. 

Long before the pandemic struck and shuttered schools, the Perry County School District in Alabama had begun to rely on remote learning to provide teachers for hard-to-staff subjects. John Heard, who stepped down as superintendent in June, said that in recent years the district had only one certified math teacher. So he arranged for students to watch live instruction from a certified teacher in another school district through video conference technology.

The arrangement, coordinated through a state-funded platform, had its strengths: The teachers were often talented and experienced, and unlike with pre-recorded lectures, students could ask their online teachers to slow down or repeat material. But Heard says the connections could seem forced. Students struggled to bond with a teacher they’d never met face to face and sometimes seemed reluctant to speak up.

“Kids are kind of timid about asking questions when you have a whole other group of people on the other end,” Heard said.  “They’re embarrassed … even though that teacher tries their best to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

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

Jermall Wright, Superintendent of the Mississippi Achievement School District

This spring at Robert C. Hatch High School in Perry County, Amman Jordan, 17, learned U.S. History from a teacher working in another district. He reported to a computer lab and independently worked through assignments reading and answering questions. The teacher didn’t offer video calls.

“Doing that over the course of an entire semester was very draining,” Jordan said.

Although the instructor would occasionally send back notes with feedback on an assignment, Jordan said the experience couldn’t compare to classes he attended in person where teachers would come over to a student’s desk and offer critiques to “change this or that.”

Related: Teacher shortages force districts to use online education programs

But in districts with few options, a remote teacher beamed in from across the state may be better than even more impersonal — and often pricey — software programs. Before the pandemic, hard-to-staff schools were already turning to online education providers when they couldn’t find any teachers, although many programs don’t have a strong track record of boosting student achievement.

But now, more desperate schools are turning to digital teachers, and that concerns educators like Heard. The former superintendent wondered if more of his former students would have gone on to study science or math if they had received better exposure to those subjects.

Missed potential is the biggest loss, he said, when students don’t have a certified teacher in the classroom.

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