Teacher shortage highlighted, increases due to COVID-19 pandemic

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — It’s no secret school districts have been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

However, a local educator said the pandemic has exacerbated issues public schools had even before the pandemic, such as the teacher shortage.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, every subject matter at nearly every grade level in the state of Tennessee has a shortage of teachers for the upcoming school year.

Tanya Coats, president of the Knox County Education Association, said that in Knox County, there was a teacher shortage in three main subjects: special education, math and science.

She also said that, before the pandemic, lack of pay and resources were largely to blame for the teacher shortage.

“We have made an effort, or at least Knox County School Board has made an effort, to actually raise teachers salaries, but people don’t want to go into a profession knowing that their student loans are going to out take their salary,” Coats said.

She said someone paying for a math degree could make twice as more as an engineer than as a teacher, and sometimes those people have to choose between making a living to support their family or helping the leaders of the future.

“We had some incentives to actually pay teachers that had just came to the profession (and) calling retirees back to actually help us in this shortage, but unfortunately, COVID has added some challenges that we’re not able to meet those challenges,” Coats said.

Coats said that at last check, since schools closed in March, more than 50 teachers went on leave.

Due to the virus, health is another concern for educators.

“We have educators that worry about their health and their age. That’s what the CDC says, you know, people that are over 60 (Are at higher risk for complications). We have people that are in our profession that are hitting their 25th and um 30th year mark, and the baby boomers, it’s time for retirement,” Coats said.

Many teachers know that going into the new school year, most Knox County classrooms are not able to adjust spacing for the 6-feet rule.

She said the district would reach out to retirees to help fill needed positions, but again, due to the pandemic, that’s not easy this year.

Coats said more funding from the federal government is what districts need to help with the shortage, but higher pay isn’t the only answer.

More resources would help too.

Coats said that thanks to the CARES Act, Knox County was able to order enough devices so every student had one. She said the CARES Act also allowed every teacher to have a device.

However, because they are just now receiving all the tools to go online (due to lack of funding to allow the one-to-one ratio before the pandemic), educators are still behind because they are just now bring trained for online.

“So now we’re trying to double back and train educators on something that we should’ve had when we first started our profession. It’s unfortunate, but this is what COVID has opened up our eyes to show that public education is underfunded, it’s under-resourced, and we just need help,” Coats said.

Coats said that parents can help while districts find more teachers.

For the upcoming school year, Coats said parents should prepare their kids about the importance of wearing masks, practice social distancing and not sharing their personal school supplies.

She also said parents need to make sure students have enough of their own school supplies because teachers won’t be able to provide shared supplies like in years prior.

“And whatever they’re not able to do, we’re going to ask the community to step up and say ‘we need your help to make sure that we’re ensuring that the students are safe as well as the educators are safe in the brick and mortar schools,'” Coats said.

She also said teachers shouldn’t be thought of as glorified or high-paid babysitters.

First of all, teachers get paid less than babysitters, she noted.

Secondly, with the right resources, educators can truly help students go far in life.

“We’re not there just to have a place for your kids to go six to eight hours a day. No. We’re there to actually help them be the next president, be the next doctor to come up with a vaccine, help them next, be the next scientist or the mathematician,” Coats said.

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