Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday instructed the Texas Education Agency to create a task force to help school districts across the state address staffing shortages that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Abbott said the task force of stakeholders and experts should investigate the challenges teacher shortages create for schools and find solutions to fill the increasing number of vacancies in districts, including the possibility of easing certification requirements for teachers. The task force also will develop policy change recommendations for the agency.

“Teachers play a critical role in the development and long-term success of our students,” Abbott wrote in the letter. “This task force should work diligently to ensure that best practices and resources for recruitment and retention are provided to districts to ensure the learning environment of Texas students is not interrupted by the absence of a qualified teacher.”

A spokesman for the TEA said more information would be available Thursday.

San Antonio school districts have struggled 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.

Moreover, a recent survey by the Texas American Federation of Teachers of more than 3,800 school employees found that 66% considered leaving their jobs in the past year and just 12% of respondents felt safe at work during the January omicron surge.

The struggle to attract and retain teachers began before the pandemic, particularly in rural areas and in fields that require additional certification requirements, such as bilingual and special education. About 8% of public school teachers in recent years left the profession annually, through retirement or attrition, according to a 2021 national survey of teachers by the RAND Corp.

Schools also are hiring more than they have in recent years, thanks to roughly $18 billion in COVID-19 relief funding they received in the past two years. Districts are competing with one another to hire from the same pool of candidates.

The TEA task force will build upon other efforts to address staffing shortages. In January, the American Federation of Teachers, which has local chapters in San Antonio, formed a task force to examine teacher and school staff shortages and propose solutions for districts with “extreme shortages,” according to a press release.

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.