'A crisis': A look inside York County's educator shortage

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch

While local school boards continue to debate mask policies, the COVID-19 pandemic's most insidious side effect lies under the surface: a shortage of educators.

At one point, so many teachers were absent from Dallastown Area Middle School that three classes were forced to relocate to the school's auditorium under the supervision of a single teacher.

From the vantage point of seventh grade teacher Ben Abeles, the school was working with a "skeleton crew" as some classes operated with a revolving door of teachers instructing students.

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Similar scenarios are playing out across the state as a combination of retirements and illnesses exacerbate existing staffing challenges, leaving some schools chronically shorthanded in virtually every area, from academics to support staff.

"I would say we are in a crisis situation," said Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey.

Seventh grade history teacher Ben Abeles uses his planning period to prepare for upcoming classes at Dallastown Area Middle School in York Township, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. Abeles, in his 20th year of teaching, has been with the Dallastown Area School District since 2007. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Askey said the lack of available staff not only adds stress to already overwhelmed teachers but also has a lasting impact on the quality of students' education.

The shortage began long before COVID-19. 

Between 2010 and 2020, Askey said, Pennsylvania experienced a 65% decline in the number of instructional certificates issued to new teachers. The pandemic only amplified the need for more staff to fill the open positions.

It's not just a lack of new teachers entering the field that is adding to the crisis. There are also increasing numbers of teachers retiring or resigning.

A 2022 poll by the National Education Association revealed that 55% of the nation's educators are considering leaving the profession earlier than they planned, and 86% of association members have seen more teachers leave since the pandemic began. 

"It's concerning for the future of education," said West York teacher Mercedes Myers.

At West York Area Middle School, where Myers works, they are dealing with not just a shortage of teachers but shortages in other positions including bus drivers, substitutes and custodians, she said. 

The vacancies put extra burdens on the existing staff. Myers said teachers have taken on additional cleaning in their classrooms, and bus drivers often do double runs to pick up more students. 

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Myers said the shortages at her school seemed to peak in the fall and have since tapered off to still significant, but more manageable levels. At the worst point, she said, her school had about 10 teachers out in a single day, sending the rest of the staff scrambling.

The same was true at Dallastown, where Abeles said their shortages seemed to peak in the fall, when as many as 15 teachers were out at the same time.

At middle schools and high schools, typically when one teacher is absent and a substitute isn't available, another teacher is pulled to cover the class. At his middle school, Abeles said, teachers are typically pulled for half of their planning period, while a second teacher covers the other half of the period. 

That system would be effective, if not for the fact that planning periods are essentially the only hour of the school day most teachers get without students. Ellen Connelly, another Dallastown teacher, said most teachers use the time to catch up on other work they have to do, take a breather to grab some coffee or go to the bathroom. 

With planning periods cut in half, or removed entirely, Connelly said, teachers don't feel they can be as effective, which in turn lowers morale through the rest of the staff. 

"It's been a cumulation of stress," Askey said. 

At the elementary level, where one teacher is assigned to cover one classroom for most of the school day, teacher absences are handled a bit differently.

At Ore Valley Elementary School in Dallastown, second grade teacher Stacey Yoder said paraprofessionals or other support staff usually cover classes when teachers are out. As a last resort, she said, sometimes one teacher will cover two classes at once. 

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The extra work loads guilt onto the teachers who are absent, even when they don't have any choice in staying home. Connelly said most teachers do their best to communicate their lesson plans to their colleagues, but there's only so much they can do when they're sick at home. 

The shortages not only demoralize teachers but also reduce support for students. Growing class sizes, which have long been an issue for U.S. schools, will likely become more common if there aren't enough teachers filling in the gaps, Abeles said. 

School districts have been working to recruit more staff in response to the shortage. Both West York and Dallastown held job fairs in the fall to recruit more staff. West York also increased compensation for substitutes and relaxed restrictions on them.

A combination of retirements and illness exacerbated existing staffing challenges, leaving some schools chronically shorthanded in virtually every area, from academics to support staff.

Troy Fisher, the human resources director for Dallastown Area School District, said the district is working with local colleges to recruit more teachers. Connelly said the district is advertising job postings more often online and on social media. However, Fisher said, neither of the efforts has been very successful. 

"Nothing has been tremendously helpful," he said. 

State lawmakers have also put in work to decrease the shortage. Legislation passed last year widened the pool of eligible substitute teachers. State education association spokesman Chris Lilienthal said he has already heard some early interest from potential substitutes coming out of that work, although it is too early to say how successful it will be. 

"We haven't seen the fruits of that labor yet," Fisher said. 

Gov. Tom Wolf is addressing the shortage in his 2022-2023 budget proposal, which includes an extra $1.25 billion in basic education funding that can be used to increase educator salaries.

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Wolf's proposal would also invest $200 million in the Nellie Bly Tuition Program, which provides financial assistance to community college students looking to find jobs in health care, education or public service.

Askey, who praised Wolf's plan, said a common reason students don't seek teaching degrees is because starting teacher salaries don't pay enough to pay off student loans. The education part of the budget proposal, he said, should help Pennsylvania attract more teachers. 

While officials search for an answer, Connelly said one thing the public can do is keep an open mind about the changes coming to the public education system outside of the pandemic. Askey said the public criticism toward education during the pandemic has gotten so loud that it has become a contributor to educator burnout. 

Staff members are working tirelessly, including over the summer, to figure out ways to educate students in less than ideal conditions, Connelly said. But it takes resources to implement those changes, and to take care of staff in the meantime, and it is vital to have the community's support backing that process, she said. 

"Our reinvention is not over," Connelly said. 

— Reach Erin Bamer at ebamer@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter @ErinBamer.