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Texas Grapples With Teacher Shortage In The Middle Of A Pandemic

Wearing a face mask and shield to protect against the spread of COVID-19, kindergarten teacher Judith Ramos prepares her classroom in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Wearing a face mask and shield to protect against the spread of COVID-19, kindergarten teacher Judith Ramos prepares her classroom in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Despite the pandemic, all school districts in Texas are required to offer in-person instruction — with few exceptions. But districts are also facing a shortage of teachers, who may be out due to COVID-19-related quarantine or isolation. They're also facing a lack of substitute teachers.

Aliyya Swaby is a reporter with The Texas Tribune. She joined KERA's Justin Martin for a look into how this is affecting classrooms across Texas.

The pool of substitute teachers is smaller and then also teachers are out more often because they're quarantining.

Obviously the quarantine process is not something that just takes a day. It takes 10 to 14 days. So that means that for those days, students might be taught by a pair of professionals. They might be taught by their principal, their superintendent, maybe the teacher next door, they might not have a teacher at all.

I interviewed a teacher who was out with COVID herself about a month, and the teacher who was teaching next door, ended up running to the door to check on the other students. So they didn't have anyone standing in front of them giving them a lesson. They were basically virtual students.

In some districts this was always the case, schools that had higher needs and fewer resources already had a hard time finding substitute teachers. Maybe those teachers were wary about working in a school where the job might be harder in a lot of ways.

I think now the problem is pretty much universal and so districts are just having to get creative.

I think we've seen some districts ask teachers to adopt classrooms. So when that teacher is out, then there will automatically be someone who can cover their class. Killeen ISD, actually, which I featured in the story is paying teachers to do that.

I think the challenge is that there's also financial issues. If you already have let teachers go or not hire back teachers that left due to normal reasons, then you already don't have enough teachers.

On top of that in some districts, there are more teachers resigning or retiring early than they might have in past years before the pandemic, because the job of being a teacher is so much harder right now.

I think that there are things that are within districts control but some of it depends on what are the financial resources they have access to; and if they're willing to dip into their savings or find other ways to pay to attract substitute teachers.

Some are increasing pay for substitute teachers. I don't know how common that is, but I do assume that some districts just don't have the extra money to do that.

Aliyya Swaby is a reporter for the Texas Tribune.

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Justin Martin at Jmartin@kera.org. You can follow Justin on Twitter @MisterJMart.

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Copyright 2021 KERA