Teachers were already pushed to the brim. Then came COVID-19.

The total number of full-time public school educators statewide has steadily increased since 2018, according to state data. But a pandemic-induced teacher shortage is creating an exodus, raising concerns about the pandemic’s long-term impact on education.
Riley Childhood Education Center, as shown September 22, 2022, is the administrative headquarters of Harvey School District 152. State data show the district currently has 17 unfilled positions as a shortage of educators grips the state and nation. HWH / Amethyst J. Davis

This report was made possible by the National Association of Black Journalists and Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative Black Press Grant program

Julius Patterson is a Thornton social worker. He’s worked within Thornton Township High Schools District 205 for five years now. Patterson didn’t have but two years under his belt before the pandemic hit, but he noticed major changes upon a return to in-person learning.

“When everyone arrived [back to in-person learning for the 2021 school year], there were some teachers who, unfortunately, got sick and were no longer able to come back into the building,” Patterson said. “There were also some teachers who realized education was not the career they wanted to pursue and resigned.”

Substitute teachers became frequent, and “sometimes there was a lack of subs,” Patterson said. Staff MacGyvered their way through it. “You try to figure it out on the fly while getting administrators and other people in the classrooms to help out [when teachers were absent],” Patterson said.

Across Harvey, teachers are quitting left and right. Low pay, increased workloads, and pandemic stress are even driving a teacher shortage across the area and state.

According to teacher shortage data from the Illinois State Board of Education, there are numerous open positions throughout Harvey-serving districts, as of October of 2022.

There are 17 open positions within Harvey School District 152 and 16 within Thornton Township High Schools District 205—mainly school nurses and special education teachers. There are three reported openings at South Holland District 151.

West Harvey-Dixmoor District 147 did not report data to the state.

There are over 5,300 openings statewide across teaching, paraprofessional, counselors, and administrative roles in both public and non-public education settings. That’s a five-year high. Nearly 45 percent of unfilled positions are from teaching and 40 percent are from paraprofessional roles alone.

‘Resigning even midyear’

The teacher shortage was a growing issue in Illinois and worsened as early as 2015 as the percentage of statewide educators in public school districts steadily declined after each academic year, according to Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools president Mark Klaisner.

“We saw it worsen every year and everywhere. The stress of the pandemic, the move to remote [learning], and the trauma of the times all exacerbated the situation,” Klaisner told the HWH.

Really, there were fluctuations in the total number of full-time public school educators statewide between 2013 and 2018, according to data from the Illinois Report Card, the state’s official source for public school data. And the total number has steadily increased since 2018.

Still, education practitioners are feeling the strain of teachers leaving the industry. Illinois schools have resorted to hiring less-than-qualified candidates to fill open positions, according to a 2022 survey by the IARSS and Goshen Education Consulting.

According to the Educator Shortage Survey, over 30 percent of posted teacher, special education and support staff like school counselors positions went unfilled or were filled with a less-than-qualified hire. The most recent survey included responses from 690 public school districts, or 80 percent of the districts statewide.

In the six years IARSS has conducted the survey, that’s the highest percentage of un- or underfilled positions reported. Superintendent responses indicated that staffing concerns across the state are worse than in previous years.

A child sits at a computer during in-person learning. They are seen wearing a mask. REUTERS / Tom Brenner

The number of vacant teacher positions increased in 2022, with the highest percentage of unfilled positions compared to the fall of 2021. According to the 2020 IARSS survey, 938 positions in school districts statewide were left unfilled.

“For the first time, we are seeing teachers resigning even midyear due to the stressing factors,” Klaisner said. One stressor? Less paraprofessional help.

“Less substitutes and paraprofessionals mean less ability for our certified staff to continue to spend working hours on professional development and contributes to their burnout,” one Cook County superintendent is quoted in the study. “We have had to accept more part-time staffing solutions which result in more employees to fill the same number of open positions,” they went on.

Better salaries and workload in non-education jobs are also luring teachers and support staff away. The Illinois House Labor and Commerce Committee passed a measure to raise wages for ESPs, or education support professionals. It still needs to proceed to the House for a full vote.

Juan “Johnny” Ramos discusses ESP wages

“We like living in our communities that we work in, but it’s really, really hard to. You have to have two to three incomes.”

Last week, we celebrated the passage of HB2784 (raising wages for ESPs) in the House: Commerce and Labor Committee. There is still work to be done for this bill to pass in the IL House.

What you can do right now: thank the house members who voted YES to HB2784. Send an email. Give them a shout out on social media. Vote breakdown here: bit.ly/3FhpFPk

#IEANEA #StrongerUnited

Posted by Illinois Education Association on Saturday, March 18, 2023

Programs like special education are feeling that absence of support.

When schools closed in the earliest days of COVID-19, teachers worked closely with parents of special needs children to ensure they received individualized service plans (ISPs) and other resources to stay afloat. However, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 14% of special-ed students in the United States received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

And of over 1,400 special education positions posted, roughly 39 percent were filled.

“This is a huge concern. Students with identified disabilities are entitled to support via federal law and their IEP,” Klaisner said. “Districts have no choice but to provide support. If they are unable to provide these, they must schedule compensatory services,” he said.

Possible solutions

Illinois State Senator Napoleon Harris (15th) introduced a measure last year to allow retired teachers to return to work. Senate Bill 3201 aims to extend the number of days a retired person can work without risking their pension from 120 days to 150.

It’s a “win-win for both parties,” Harris said, because classrooms can feel relief while retirees can generate supplemental income. “If anything during COVID, people realized two things: you can’t replace your time with money, and people are definitely respecting their time more because of that,” Harris said.

There’s more people joining the profession but it’s coupled with an exodus causing retention issues, he added. But teachers unions raised objections to Harris’ proposal, instead preferencing an increase in the number and pay of full-time teachers. That wasn’t Harris’ goal.

“My mission was to simply get more teachers into the classroom due to the shortage,” Harris said. He said unions were in a seemingly conflicting position, representing both current and retired teachers.

“I’m not saying that they shouldn’t make or be paid more,” Harris said, adding that he believed their concerns, while valid, are part of a broader contract labor dispute.

But Harris plans to amend the bill. The cap will be at 140 days instead of 150.

Harvey native, Thornton alum, and Illinois State Senator Napoleon Harris (15th) introduced a measure last year to alleviate the teacher shortage. Harris’ government website

Beefing up staff capacity is one solution. Others include increased funding for K-12 schools, expanding educator opportunities, and auditing federal stimulus expenditures statewide, recommended education experts in the EAS.

Researchers suggested that an increase in funding from Springfield, the state’s capital, would help school districts in the state vie for teachers and fill openings.

Last month, Governor JB Pritzker announced a teacher pipeline initiative aimed at recruiting and retaining more teachers.

The state will direct $70 million to the most economically distressed school districts in the state over the next three years.


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