Schools across the state of Nebraska have struggled since the pandemic began two years ago. Teachers are tired and overworked. The number of available substitute teachers continues to decrease, the average number of students enrolling into teaching programs is lowering and filling open positions has been getting more difficult.
For the past two years, Nebraska schools have adapted to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regulations put in place to stop the spread of the virus. Due to the regulations, school systems deal with students and staff missing school for quarantine periods for possible weeks at a time, which has led to a shortage of substitutes and teaching staff.
Whether schools are located in rural communities or big cities, they all seem to be sharing the same struggles.
“The preschool has had to shut down a couple of times, based on a number of kids who are sick,” said Dan Kennedy, the Lawrence-Nelson Public Schools principal. “Middle school and high school we have shut down once for a couple of days.”
Westside Community Schools, Bellevue Public Schools, Millard Public Schools, Lincoln Public Schools,Lawrence-Nelson Public Schools and Grand Island Public Schools all have been shut down for days or weeks at a time to start off the second half of the 2021-22 school year.There has been a constant switch from virtual to non-virtual events within these schools since 2020.
During the majority of the 2020-2021 school year, LPS implemented a no-friday school system to help slow the spread of the virus. Due to the rise in recent cases, they put that precaution back into place for a few weeks in January when students came back from winter break.
In November 2021, members of the Nebraska State Education Association said schools across the state are experiencing a staffing shortfall due to the pandemic, and a survey conducted by the NSEA concluded that 97% of schools in Nebraska say their school district is experiencing a substitute teacher shortage as well.
More than 1,000 Nebraska teachers say they plan to leave the classroom at the end of the year according to a recent survey by the Nebraska State Education Association. Responders to the survey emphasized how they are more stressed, working more hours than past years and have less time to prepare.
With the absence of teachers and the lack of substitutes available, schools often have “class covers” in which teachers use their plan periods to teach the classes that don’t have a teacher that day. It has created more of a hectic environment with teachers constantly going in and out. It has taken away valuable planning time for the teachers to prepare for their lessons.
Upperclassmen college students who are looking to pursue a degree in education are even seeking to fill these substitute positions for the end of the spring semester and beginning of the fall. To apply for these open positions, Nebraska students have to first complete a professional education course, complete the human relations training requirement, get a written request from the superintendent for issuance of the certificate for a specific school district, and also get a background check as part of the application process.
Since March 2020, the overall enrollment numbers into university and college teaching programs across the nation have also decreased. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education surveyed schools and found that undergraduate enrollment in teaching programs declined by at least 11% during the pandemic, which is a contributing factor to the Nebraska statewide teacher shortage.
With fewer people pursuing the education field, schools are regularly looking to fill teaching spots.
As of March 14, 2022, the Nebraska Department of Education declared that the number of districts that reported open positions increased from 53 to 143 from 2020-21 to 2021-22. With that, 14% of teacher positions across 143 school districts were unfilled during the 2021-22 school year as well.
“There’s a shortage of people going into teaching in general,” Kennedy said. “The number of kids graduating with teaching degrees is dropping, which makes a tight labor market for hiring and makes it even worse.”
LPS also has six principals who plan to retire after this school year.
“I don’t think it will probably get better for a while,” Kennedy said. “It sounds like nationwide the number of people going into education is not keeping pace with those rural openings that are showing up.”