On March 16, 2020, the Florida Department of Education closed all public K- 12 schools for an extended spring break due to surging coronavirus infections. During the two week break Lee County academic leaders scrambled to formulate a distance learning plan should the closure be extended. Following two closure extensions, on April 18th Governor DeSantis declared that Florida schools would be closed through the end of the school year.
When in July 2020, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran declared that Florida would open brick and mortar schools in August, the SDLC provided three educational choices for parents: in-person learning and two types of online classes. Many teachers found themselves teaching both in-person and online synchronous classes; some even balanced hybrid classes of students in their classrooms and on their computer screens at the same time.
Numerous guest teachers withdrew, leaving teachers to cover classes for ill or quarantining colleagues. Pre-pandemic, teachers already had experienced low wages and lack of respect for the job, but now they faced health concerns, exhaustion, and burnout as well. Many teachers chose to resign or to take an early retirement.
Compounding the problem of accelerated teacher departures from the classroom is the declining number of teacher prep enrollments. Long before COVID-19, with a growing perception of teaching as an undesirable career, young people eschewed careers in education. Between 2006 and 2019 US education degrees dropped 22%. The pandemic exacerbated these waning enrollments as now some feared a vocation with increased health risks. Though our HR Department has worked tirelessly to recruit new teachers, there are just not enough applicants. In October 2021, Florida teacher vacancies stood at over 5,000, an increase of more than 67% from August 2020. In the SDLC during the week of January 10, 2022, instructional openings totaled 128!
Low financial compensation frequently is cited as the major reason why fewer people are choosing to become or to remain teachers. The wage gap between teachers and other comparably educated professionals continues to widen. It was 6% in 1996 and 21% in 2018. Overall, about 20% of teachers hold non-school second jobs during the school year to make ends meet; others supplement their salaries with school-based jobs such as coaching or teaching extra classes. Although in 2020 Florida Governor DeSantis touted significant raises for beginning teachers, funds received by the schools were inadequate to fund raises across the board. The losers? Veteran teachers.
Attracting and retaining effective teachers requires rethinking what it means to treat them as professionals. Teachers are demoralized by the lack of respect for the profession. In Florida, the assault on public education by Tallahassee lawmakers continues to escalate. In a recent CNN interview a member of the Lee County local delegation who serves on two Florida House Education Subcommittees called public schools “government schools” that need to be “dismantled.” Teachers lack autonomy. Politicians who never spent a day in the classroom feel qualified to tell teachers how to do their jobs. In many schools teachers are not even participants in school-based decision making.
Public school teachers have long explained the changes needed that would keep them in the classroom, making schoolchildren the ultimate winners. Unless politicians, administrators, and school boards start listening, the exodus of professional teachers will continue, and our system of free public education for ALL will crumble. The losers? Our children.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Many factors contributing to teacher shortages in Florida and US