San Antonio school districts are struggling to bring in and retain enough teachers to keep up with the unique educational demands after students spent 18 months learning in a hybrid fashion.
San Antonio school districts are struggling to bring in and retain enough teachers to keep up with the unique educational demands of students who spent 18 months learning at home or in hybrid fashion. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

For second-grade teacher Dina Toland, the workload of trying to close learning gaps for the 21 students in her classroom is becoming unsustainable.

The San Antonio Independent School District teacher often stays after school four days a week to tutor several students who are still reading on a kindergarten level or haven’t mastered second-grade math concepts.

That’s after a full day of teaching her students — each of whom is learning at different levels after almost a year and a half of virtual instruction and spotty attendance. She estimates that two-thirds of her students are learning below grade level, which is more than previous school years.

“It’s twice the workload, plus having to rethink how you approach everything,” Toland said. “You can’t just pull out your laminated lesson plans from 10 years ago and go to it. It’s not working like that.”

Halfway into the school year, San Antonio’s largest school districts are still struggling to find enough teachers, and they’re leaning on a smaller pool of substitute teachers than ever before to temporarily fill those vacancies. Teachers are resigning or retiring, leaving behind retention bonuses for health concerns or burnout. Districts have increased substitute pay rates to attract more qualified candidates, but many are retired teachers who don’t want to substitute on campuses where students aren’t wearing masks.

Wanda Longoria, president of Northside ISD’s teacher union, said the coronavirus pandemic and the state’s chronic underfunding of public education has created “the perfect storm” for school districts. For years, teachers have asked for more support in the classroom, whether that’s behavioral specialists, counselors or social workers who can address student behavior and mental health issues — or just higher pay.

Now that districts have millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds, they are looking to fill those positions, only to find they’re competing with other schools for the same specialists.

“Education has been neglected for the last couple of decades in Texas, and now we’re seeing the fallout,” Longoria said.

The staffing struggles are not unique to San Antonio or Texas. The American Federation of Teachers, which the Northside AFT is affiliated with, formed a task force last week to examine teacher and school staff shortages and propose solutions for districts with “extreme shortages,” according to a press release.

Nationally, employment in public education decreased by 575,000 workers between February 2020 and October 2021, according to the latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nearly one in four teachers said they were likely to leave their jobs at the end of last school year, according to a March 2021 survey by the RAND Corporation. That is up from one in six teachers on average who were likely to leave before the pandemic and higher than workers in other fields. Black educators were more likely to plan to leave. The survey also noted that a higher proportion of teachers reported feeling stressed out and depressed than other workers.

Longoria said the teachers union has been getting calls daily from members and non-members, seeking advice on how to resign or retire within the parameters of their contracts.

“They’re overwhelmed because of the additional demands that are going above and beyond what they already were experiencing,” she said.

If teachers break their contracts mid-year without their district’s permission and good cause, they are abandoning their contracts, which is sanctionable by the State Board of Education if their district reports them. The Texas Education Code defines “good cause” as a serious illness of the educator or close family member or relocation because of a change in their spouse or partner’s employment. Without good cause, teachers’ certificates can be flagged if they quit, meaning they can’t teach for a year.

Northside ISD, San Antonio’s largest district with about 100,000 students, had more than 150 teacher vacancies before the winter break. The district has never had a school not fully staffed at this point in the school year, said Jackie Horras, secondary human resources director.

Horras said the pandemic drove down the number of new teachers entering the profession and slowed down those who would have done their student teaching last school year but didn’t want to do it virtually. But she said even before the pandemic, it was getting difficult to find teachers, particularly in math and science.

“There’s fewer applicants that are being produced nationwide, compounded with more openings across the board in every district,” she said. “We’re all competing for just a much smaller pool of potential teachers.”

During the 2018-19 school year, 21,869 new teacher certificates were issued across the state, according to the Texas Education Agency. In the 2019-20 school year, new teacher certificates dropped by more than a fifth, to 17,734.

Chyla Whitton, North East ISD’s human resources executive director, said the district that serves about 60,000 students has noticed fewer teacher applicants over the past several years. But for 2021-22, the problem has been more pronounced, with NEISD starting the school year with vacancies and more teachers requesting to resign throughout the year.

In October, NEISD’s board of trustees approved a $575 retention bonus for teachers and librarians. Retention stipends in other local school districts ranged from $500 to $3,000; districts have dipped into their federal coronavirus aid funds to offer these incentives to try to keep schools fully staffed.

San Antonio ISD will start a teacher job sharing program for the spring 2022 semester. The district is hiring certified teachers who would work 3.75 hours a day and earn between $140 and $155 to share a teaching assignment, depending on their experience and education levels. SAISD will target retired teachers in particular, who may find the half-day schedule more appealing, said Toni Thompson, assistant superintendent for human resources.

“As districts are faced with teacher shortages, we’re all just looking to find other strategies to recruit and retain qualified teachers,” Whitton said.

NEISD also has partnered with universities, such as the University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas A&M University, to hold job fairs, both virtually and in person. Whitton said the district has seen better results from in-person job fairs and plans to hold more in the spring.

But school districts are also using their federal coronavirus aid funds in an attempt to increase staffing levels beyond what they’ve needed in previous years, further compounding staffing issues. They need more educators to help combat learning loss and behavioral specialists to address students’ social emotional gaps that have developed during the pandemic, Horras said.

“Teaching is a hard job, and last year teachers were teaching students virtually and in person simultaneously,” she said. “It was quite the challenge, and now that we’re back almost 100% in person, we’re trying to close those learning gaps for kids that have been out of school for 18-plus months.”

That’s exactly the task Toland faces daily at SAISD’s Advanced Learning Academy at Euclid. But the second-grade teacher has not retired — although she could after teaching for 29 years — because she is invested in both the Teacher Retirement System and her students. During virtual instruction last school year, Toland and many other teachers developed closer relationships with families, engaging parents and grandparents to make sure students logged on each day and completed their school work.

“I don’t want to leave all that investment that I made (in retirement), but I also just really love the kids. I have an awesome class this year,” she said. “A lot of teachers stick around both for the kids and the relationships they build with families.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.