COLUMBIA – Hundreds of South Carolina public school teachers have quit their jobs since the start of the school year, pushing pre-pandemic shortages beyond crisis level and making it even more difficult for students to catch up.
More than 500 vacancies remained in K-12 schools as of February, according to the Center for Education Recruitment, Retention and Advancement (CERRA) at Winthrop University, which released a very first update mid-year.
“Districts are in survival mode right now and are probably not keeping track of why their teachers are leaving. They are just trying to fill positions at this point,” said Jennifer Garrett, CERRA analyst. “If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I think I would be a little more optimistic, but it’s going to have a lingering effect.”
After years of reporting a worsening teacher shortage, CERRA appeared to have a bright spot in its inception report for 2020-2021, with fewer teachers leaving their posts between last school year and this one. The nearly 6,000 who left for various reasons, including retirement and changing schools, were at least a five-year low.
But fewer hires over the summer resulted in a spike in vacancies instead. The 699 openings at the start of the school year represented a 26% increase from 2019, according to CERRA.
Her February update brought more bad news, with 677 more teachers resigning in the past six months; There are 515 vacancies after district leaders fill all the positions they can, many with long-term replacements and combined positions.
Mid-year departures are of particular concern, as they indicate teachers are so eager to leave that they are willing to risk losing their teaching license, at least temporarily, for breaking their contract.
“We are hemorrhaging teachers in this state,” Patrick Kelly, a teacher who lobbies for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, said during a House panel on Feb. 25.
Kelly has called on lawmakers to “lock in” on finding ways to recruit and retain teachers.
“Our students suffer when there is no teacher,” said the Blythewood High history teacher, who spoke to lawmakers practically from a classroom that was empty because the school did not. could not find enough replacements. “If we don’t do anything about it as a state, we’re not going to envision a one-year negative impact of the pandemic on our students. It will really be a generational impact.
“At the end of the day, if we don’t have good teachers, we don’t have a good education system.”
The number of departures directly due to the pandemic is unknown. It was not part of the CERRA report.
Lawmakers on both sides agree with Kelly.
“There is simply no substitute for a well-trained and qualified live teacher in a classroom who cares about his students,” said Greg Hembree, president of the state Education Senate, R-Little River. “If we could increase the size of this army by 20 percent, that will be what will turn the corner for us.
But what the legislature will do about it, especially this year, is unclear.
Before the pandemic hit, lawmakers were prepared to give every teacher a raise of $ 3,000. The $ 210 million cost would have been the largest single-year increase in teacher salaries in South Carolina. Instead, the legislature froze state spending, even suspending the normal and paltry increase in teachers for an additional year of experience.
Legislation passed by the House, which is expected to be approved by the Senate, would spend up to $ 50 million to retroactively restore those pay increases.
Other proposals have no chance of succeeding.
This includes a bill that seeks to keep young teachers in the classroom by offering them to write off their college loan debt after teaching at least five years in a South Carolina classroom, provided that they graduated from a state college.
Research shows that many teachers leave the profession within the first five years. According to CERRA, more than 40 percent of teachers who left their jobs last year had been in a classroom for five years or less.
A House panel took testimony on February 24, but when its members learned it would cost around $ 31 million for 1,000 teachers in the first year alone, the response was laughter from members of both sides. . However, they have indicated that they may be open to a similar and less expensive incentive once the economy improves.
“It’s an interesting idea, but maybe a little too expensive for us,” said representative David Weeks, D-Sumter.
“Particularly at this time when we are struggling to maintain the status quo and deal with expenses,” added panel chair Rep. Garry Smith, R-Simpsonville.
Kathy Maness, director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, has called on the legislature to consider ways to cancel teacher loans after the state exits the pandemic.
“We are experiencing a crisis of teacher shortages in South Carolina in everything,” she said, noting that they were previously limited to certain subjects and levels. “When we can’t find elementary and early childhood teachers in South Carolina, we are in crisis. “
When talking to new teachers during their orientation, one of their main concerns is paying off student debt, “and you all know teachers don’t make a lot of money,” Maness told the panel. “It can be a way to retain teachers. “
It would build on the state’s existing loan cancellation program designed to find teachers for decades-hard-to-fill positions.
Teachers who work in a school with a turnover rate of 20% or more can have their student loans written off over a period of three to five years, depending on what they teach. It has long been a problem that teachers often leave for a better performing or less rural school after staying long enough to have their loans canceled. But like the shortage problem, turnover is also getting worse.
Almost a third of the state’s public schools – or 416 – have three-year teacher turnover rates of at least 20%. This is less than 10 percent of schools four years ago.
What are districts doing
School districts are trying to develop their own pipeline with programs that encourage prospective teachers, who will hopefully return home to work after graduation.
This includes programs like TeachCharleston, a three-year program that involves high school students taking classes to prepare for jobs teaching math and science, as well as English to students learning the language – positions particularly difficult to fill.
Since the start of 2018, 37 high school students have enrolled, said Bill Briggman, head of the human resources department at Charleston County School.
That’s a small number for the second largest school district in the state. But every little bit counts.
“We see the need to train our new teachers and we are really taking an intentional strategy for more teachers of color because we need more diversity in our schools,” he said. “We have 50,000 students in our own backyard.”
The South Carolina Parent Teacher Association is also concerned about the long-term impacts of poorly staffed schools. Its president, DeVane Trigiani, believes school districts must find local solutions as legislative efforts dwindle.
Over the past two years, the House and Senate have passed very different versions of legislation aimed at improving K-12 education, before the pandemic ended the session in early March and made the whole process not applicable.
“These effects will hit us six, ten years later. I just think we really need to come back to the table and decide that education is going to be a priority, and we’re going to start in our communities, ”Trigiani said. “We’ve been talking about this for so long that the action has faded and no one knows what to do.”