SPRINGFIELD – Schools were struggling filling teaching positions before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Illinois nearly two years ago.
The challenges of educating students during a prolonged health crisis has been an “added stress” for teachers in northwest Illinois schools, said Chris Dvorak, superintendent of the LaSalle, Marshall and Putnam County Regional Office of Education.
“I believe things have continued to get worse from the standpoint of COVID,” Dvorak said. “… I think it created more of a problem than were we were before.”
The 2021 Illinois Educator Shortage survey released Tuesday by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools shows that 86 percent of school districts in the northwest region reported that shortages of teachers and substitute educators continue to worsen. The region spans from Jo Daviess County to Rock Island County to LaSalle County to Winnebago County.
The study noted that the top reason reported for educator vacancies has been retirement.
Chris Tennyson, superintendent of Lee, Ogle and Whiteside County Regional Office of Education, noted that one of the big things with teachers retiring early seemed to be the added stress of dealing with COVID.
“It just made them think about maybe [retiring] quicker only because when they signed up for teaching, none of us ever imagined that we’d have two years like this,” Tennyson said. “It’s really nothing that you can prepare for.”
The most common strategy for covering vacancies is combining classes followed by outsourcing to third-party vendors and utilizing long-term substitutes. But, 96 percent of school districts statewide reported minor to serious problems with substitute shortages.
Regional superintendents reported that COVID-19 has made finding substitutes more difficult since those who have regularly filled those positions tend to be retired teachers who now do not want to come to a school and risk getting the virus.
“We had a good workforce of retirees, people that had worked in the classroom that were willing to come back and work within the district that they retired from,” Dvorak said. “A lot of those people pulled back and said, ‘Not knowing if it’s safe or not, I don’t want to put my health and myself at risk.’”
Not having substitute teachers to depend on, districts reported pulling instructors from class preparation time to cover for absences elsewhere. They also have been using administrators to teach, and have combined classes.
Joshua Nichols, superintendent of Amboy Community Unit School District 272, said the district there had to move Spanish classes online, combine classes and move teachers around to address staffing shortages.
“It’s very difficult because you’re trying to fill one hole and you’re trying to find the highest need,” Nichols said.
Being in a rural area, Nichols noted that staffing can be difficult, but the district has managed to do so by hustling to find people – especially those who just graduated with a teaching degree.
Fifty-two percent of districts statewide said the location of their schools negatively impacts the ability to recruit new teachers, the number one reason noted in the survey.
Over the past five years, superintendents continue to report fewer qualified applicants for teaching positions.
Dvorak noted that when he was a school principal, numerous applications would file in, but when he talks to schools around the district, they are happy if they get one or two qualified candidates.
“The question is going to be when we get out of (COVID) is how can we think and work to create some allowances where districts have the ability to put qualified people that are good with students in these positions when emergencies occur,” Dvorak said.
In the study, the IARSS recommends an effective strategy to address shortages is through local solutions such as connecting middle and high schools to early education pathway networks, partnering with community colleges and offering educator preparation programs that would provide them with a student teacher experience.
Anji Garza, director of professional learning and education services for Lee, Ogle and Whiteside County Regional Office of Education, has focused on expanding the college and career education pathway program with the help of grants received from the state board of education.
School districts can work with local businesses and colleges to provide students with a hands-on learning experience, along with offering incentives and tuition scholarships for students with a college and career pathway endorsement.
“We started having conversations about how we could address some of the pipeline issues and really grow our communities,” Garza said.
Through the CCPE program, Garza said that high school juniors and seniors have been able to receive a student teaching experience. The district has partnered with Northern Illinois University and Western Illinois University, along with Sauk Valley Community College, in offering dual credit classes.
Partnering with Illinois State University and local community colleges in his region, Dvorak said, provides some remote classes so students don’t have to drive. Dvorak noted districts also do a lot of advertising and are constantly looking at potential candidates and trying to hire them if they are interested.
“So many educators that I talked to can give me one or two teachers in their life that got them thinking about education or made a difference in their life or ignited that passion,” Tennyson said. “And that’s what we need to remember — that we’re the best sales people for our profession.”