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'Severe' staff shortages forcing school districts to close or go online

School districts in several states have had to shift plans in the last few weeks because there aren't enough teachers or subs.

WASHINGTON — Several school districts around the country have either temporarily closed or gone virtual recently, and while it is COVID-related, it has less to do with case surges and everything to do with staff shortages. Short-staffed schools coupled with a shortage of substitute teachers have left districts with few options. 

A survey from Education Week found that 40% of district leaders and principals would call their staff situation "severe" or "very severe" this year. The School Superintendents Association says the lack of substitutes across the U.S. "has never been more severe."

In Virginia, Loudoun County Public Schools went virtual for two days in early November because the district said it couldn't find enough subs. At Lewiston Middle School in Maine, students will be learning virtually until at least Wednesday due to staff shortages and a spike in COVID cases.

Another issue that's made matters worse this week is a quirk in the schedule. Many schools are scheduled to be closed Thursday for Veterans Day, but then planned to have classes again on Friday. 

Three separate school districts in the Denver area will be closed this Friday, Nov. 12. Boulder Valley School District, Adams 12 Five Star Schools, and Adams 14 are all facing similar staffing shortages. 

"Unfortunately, in a quirk of scheduling our academic calendar left Friday as a floating day of school. While we do have a robust review and input process to develop our school calendars, we did not realize at the time of approving this calendar the staffing shortages we would be facing this year," Boulder Valley superintendent Rob Anderson said in a letter to parents.  

Boulder Valley told 9News in Denver the usually have about 900 substitute teachers available, but this year, as a result of the pandemic, they only have about 300. The district said it could not find enough substitute teachers to accommodate the 486 teachers who are off on Friday following the Veterans Day holiday.   

A similar situation forced Bellevue and Seattle public schools to announce this week that it would be closed on Friday as well. "As of last week, more than 600 educators had requested a substitute and additional requests came in this week," Seattle Public Schools told KING5. Newaygo Public Schools in Michigan will be closed until Nov. 15 for similar reasons

Teacher shortages aren't new, but experts say the pandemic has made the problem worse, highlighting the need for more educators. “The shortage of qualified, well-trained teachers was already critical prior to the pandemic and COVID has only exacerbated the problem,” said Laura Kohn-Wood, dean of the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development.  

According to the Department of Education, the U.S. educational system has gaps in thousands of "teacher shortage areas," in every state and nearly every discipline. 

The lack of educators has also lead to burn out among the few teachers left, having to cover roles throughout campus. 

"Many of my colleagues, like, are crying," said Sobia Sheikh, a high school math teacher in Washington. "They are frustrated, they are overwhelmed, wishing [that] tomorrow wasn't another workday."