Schools Across U.S. Suffering From Teacher Shortages Pull In Other Employees to Fill Roles

Staffing shortages at schools are leading counselors, principals and superintendents to step in as teachers.

With the rise of COVID cases throughout the U.S., schools are taking precautionary measures to keep students and teachers safe. From wearing a mask during school days to doing virtual learning, schools are trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Dozens of employees from the Cincinnati Public School District's central office were sent to schools this week to serve as teachers when the schools were at risk of closing due to low staffing numbers.

Brenda Cassellius, superintendent of Boston Public Schools, tweeted Wednesday she was substituting a fifth-grade class, and a San Francisco school asked employees with teaching credentials to be available for classroom assignments.

With the arrival of the COVID-19 omicron variant, and staff absences, large school districts in cities including Atlanta, Detroit and Milwaukee decided to temporarily switch to virtual learning.

Deborah Schmidt, a history teacher at McKinley Classical Leadership Academy in St. Louis, was asked to cover a physics class Thursday.

"It's absolutely exhausting," Schmidt told the Associated Press.

In Chicago, the teachers union voted to refuse in-person instruction, leading to classes being canceled on Wednesday. Classes were also canceled on Thursday, and appeared to be headed in the same direction for Friday.

Meghan Hatch-Geary, an English teacher at Woodland Regional High School in New Haven, Connecticut said she is exhausted, as are the school's other teachers.

"I had a friend say to me, 'You know, three weeks ago we were locking our doors because of school shootings again, and now we're opening the window for COVID,'" Hatch-Geary told the AP.

Hundreds of teachers in New Haven were out each day this week, leading to administrators teaching in classrooms. Classroom aides, as well, have not shown up, which is difficult and confusing for young students with disabilities.

"It's very difficult to get through my lesson plans when somebody doesn't know your students, when somebody is not used to working with students with disabilities," Special education teacher Jennifer Graves told the AP.

Chicago Public School
A sign is displayed at the entrance of the headquarters for Chicago Public Schools on January 05, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. Classes at all of Chicago public schools have been canceled today by the school district after the teacher's union voted to return to virtual learning citing unsafe conditions in the schools as the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus continues to spread. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Even before infection rates took off around the holidays, many districts were struggling to keep up staffing levels, particularly among substitutes and other lower-paid positions. As a result, teachers have been spread thin for months, said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association.

"All of these additional burdens and stresses on top of being worried about getting sick, on top of being stressed like all of us are to after a two-year pandemic...it just compounded to put us in a place that we are now," Pringle said in an interview.

Some administrators have already been helping for months in classrooms and cafeterias to fill in for sick and quarantining staff.

"We're not in love with the circumstances, but we're happy to do the work because the work is making sure that we're here for our kids," said Mike Cornell, superintendent of the Hamburg Central School District in New York, who spent time this fall on cafeteria duty poking straws into juice pouches and peeling lids off chips to fill staffing gaps.

Among the schools that went virtual this week because of staffing shortages was second-grade teacher Anna Tarka-DiNunzio's school of roughly 200 students in Pittsburgh. Some taught their students despite being sick with the virus, said Tarka-DiNunzio, who was disappointed to hear some characterize staffing shortages as the result of teachers arbitrarily taking off work.

"It's not just people calling off. It's people who are sick or who have family members who are sick," she said.

The strains on schools this week might have been even tougher if not for large numbers of students being absent themselves. In New Haven, teachers say classes have been only about half full.

Jonathan Berryman, a music teacher, said some of his students haven't shown up for weeks. He worries what that will mean for the performance targets set for students and their teachers.

"Before omicron came along, there was fairly smooth sailing. Now the ship has been rocked," he said. "We get to make midyear adjustments in our evaluation system. And some I'm sure are wondering whether we should even be concerned about that academic progress piece."

Graves, who is in her 12th year of teaching in New Haven, said that she is grateful for administrators who have been helping out in classrooms and the aides who have pitched in, but that her students have struggled with the lack of consistency in staffing.

She also has been frustrated with quickly changing health protocols, and worried about the health of herself and her extended family. Most of her young students are not able to tolerate wearing masks for long stretches, and many have been coughing lately.

"This is the hardest year I've had," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.