It’s hard to believe that it’s already eight weeks into the school year. While we hoped that this year would allow for a return to normal, that has unfortunately not been the case. The pandemic continues to challenge school districts with positive cases, contract tracing, and quarantine protocols. Schools around the country are also coping with a sharp increase in mental health concerns as well as teacher and staffing shortages.
As the school year progresses, it has become clear that many students are struggling nationwide. The crisis in mental health has been growing for years, but the pandemic has accelerated it. Students are facing a number of challenges that are affecting their mental health, including feelings of isolation and anxiety, substance and alcohol use, and the unexpected deaths of loved ones from COVID-19. In response to this, our district has not only expanded our partnership with River Valley Counseling Center, but we have also added eight School Adjustment Counselor positions across our schools to help meet the needs of our students. We know that if our students are not in a healthy mental state, that they cannot adequately access our curriculum, which directly affects student achievement.
The COVID pandemic has triggered a spike in teacher retirements and resignations. In addition to teacher vacancies, schools around the country are facing food supply shortages, and struggle to find enough bus drivers, paraprofessionals, custodians and caf . Many districts also face shortages of substitute teachers, who are needed now more than ever to cover for teachers who are out sick or quarantined. Some schools have closed when too many positions could not be filled, while others grapple with higher than normal unfilled positions, leaving remaining staff overworked.
The lack of qualified teachers in the US has worsened during the pandemic. Difficulties filling teacher openings continue to affect schools across the country. In South Dakota, one district started the school year with 120 teacher vacancies. In Texas, districts in Houston, Waco and other neighborhoods reported teacher vacancies in the hundreds as the school year began. Florida is short over 5000 teachers across the state. Our district still has over a dozen critical positions to fill and it’s already the middle of October.
The teacher shortage didn't start with COVID-19. Educators have been leaving the profession for years for a variety of reasons, and the pandemic only exacerbated the situation. According to a June survey of 2,690 members of the National Education Association, 32% said the pandemic was likely to make them leave the profession earlier than expected. Over the last 18 months, teacher workloads have increased considerably along with stress levels. In May, a survey by the CDC Foundation reported that 27% of teachers reported depression and 37% reported anxiety. Further complicating the staff shortages is the fact that fewer students are majoring in education at college and universities.
With election season upon us, it is my hope that candidates running for public office realize the actual issues facing our school system. As a community, we need to collaborate to solve the ongoing mental health crisis and lack of qualified school staffing. Schools nationwide have had to shut down classrooms because there just aren’t enough teachers. While this has not happened in Westfield yet, that day may come. Critics focusing on standardized test scores and outdated accountability data during a global pandemic is not helpful. Debating about masks or the myth that Critical Race Theory is being taught in our schools is equally nonproductive. If we truly hope to work together to create an environment where children can learn and thrive and be surrounded by positive role models and examples in their community, we need to acknowledge that our world is hurting, traumatized, and in need of healing. We also need to celebrate the good work that our educators, administrators, support staff and families do every day caring for our children.