Editor’s Note: Shaw Media Local News Network reporters Lucas Robinson and Denise Unland contributed to this report.
A new study from a regional superintendents group in Illinois shows public school districts in the northeast region — which contains seven counties adjacent to Cook County — are facing a shortage of teachers and substitute teachers, which has worsened during the COVID pandemic.
The 2020 Illinois Educator Shortage Study, released March 1 by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, shows that 55 percent of responding northeast region superintendents believe there is a teacher shortage problem and 72 percent believe the substitute teacher problem is worse than five years ago.
The statewide numbers were worse, as the study found 77 percent of responding school districts statewide have a teacher shortage problem, and 93 percent of school districts surveyed have a substitute teacher shortage problem.
The northeast region — which spans McHenry, Lake, DuPage, Kane, Will, Grundy and Kendall counties — is one of seven regions established for the study.
Teacher shortages are most severe in the west central Illinois region, where 89 percent of school superintendents indicated at least a minor problem. The southwest (87 percent), southeast (84 percent) and east central (84 percent) regions were also above the state average.
Of the 853 school districts in the state, 591 districts responded to the IARSS survey and only 47 percent of northeast schools responded.
Shawn Walsh, regional superintendent of schools at the Will County Regional Office of Education, said his office has actively promoted the need for substitute teachers in the county.
“The substitute shortage is very real and has been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Walsh said in an email.
McHenry County Regional Superintendent of Schools Leslie Schermerhorn said her schools struggle to find substitute teachers who possess the technological experience needed to teach students remotely.
The pandemic has also affected the availability of retired substitute teachers who are able to teach in-person because many are concerned about exposing themselves to the virus, she said.
Of 5,414 total posted teacher positions statewide, 938 of those positions, or 17 percent, were unfilled or filled with less-than-qualified hires, school districts reported.
Shannon Dudek, superintendent of Morris Elementary School District 54, said the teacher and substitute teacher shortages is a huge problem and the district is finding it challenging to find enough qualified people to support and hire, especially in the areas of speech and language pathologists and social workers.
“Those people are very hard to find,” Dudek said.
Statewide, teacher shortage issues in schools resulted in 257 classes canceled and 195 classes converted to online instruction, the study found.
In the 78 school districts in the northeast region that responded to the survey, nine classes were canceled and 16 moved online.
Among survey respondents, 52 percent of districts in the northeast region reported having fewer qualified applicants for teaching positions in 2020 than in previous years, and 74 percent reported expecting serious to minor teacher shortages in the coming two years.
The IARSS study recommends that state education leaders “collaborate to develop robust and targeted educator pipeline programs and/or statewide incentives that address educator shortages in a systemic and sustainable way.”
Recommendations to the General Assembly and state leaders also include a state-sponsored loan forgiveness program for teachers and leaders who work in the most hard-to-staff schools, positions and areas of the state.
The study also proposed that the Illinois General Assembly consider changes to the Teachers Retirement System that could provide more incentive for teachers to enter the profession.