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Behind the teacher shortage, an unexpected culprit: Covid relief money


DETROIT — When a staffing crisis at Eastpointe Middle School outside Detroit forced administrators to close the school last month for more than a week, moving classes online, it wasn’t because of a Covid-19 outbreak.

And it wasn’t because the district’s teachers had fled the profession after a year and a half of disruptions to instruction and tensions over Covid safety.

The problem, Eastpointe Community Schools Superintendent Ryan McLeod said, is that they could get better teaching jobs — and did.

Of the 10 teachers who resigned from his district since Aug. 9, at least seven landed in other districts, he said.

“We are one of the lower paying districts in the area,” said McLeod, who decided Sept. 16 to temporarily move middle school classes online after three teachers quit. “There’s been an increase in hiring, an increase in the number of positions in different districts and our staff used that as an opportunity to make a jump.”

Education and labor experts say McLeod is running into an unexpected side effect of the very thing that was supposed to help schools this year: the flood of federal Covid relief dollars.

The $122 billion relief package signed by President Joe Biden in the spring, along with two prior rounds of Covid funding, have enabled nearly every public school in the country to invest in equipment, facilities and programs designed to repair the deep social, emotional and instructional toll the pandemic has had on children.

But the decision by some districts to spend the money on hiring or bonuses has created problems for other districts — particularly those like Eastpointe, where McLeod says a long history of financial challenges has made it difficult to hold on to staff.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this,” said Marguerite Roza, whose Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University has been tracking school Covid relief spending. She has been hearing from districts in competitive labor markets about a “hiring bonanza” she described as “predatory.”

“There’s a lot of money flowing,” she said, and “higher and higher signing bonuses.”

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told NBC News he’s aware that the Covid relief funds are creating hiring challenges in some parts of the country, especially in places that have long struggled with shortages in areas such as math and special education. But he’s hopeful the issue can be resolved with creative measures like teacher training programs that put educators in classrooms faster.

“We’re going to have to be innovative at all levels in order to meet the needs of our students and the demands of the teaching profession,” he said.

‘We couldn’t compete’

When Danelle Marsh moved from Detroit to the suburb of Eastpointe this year, she was enthusiastic about sending her daughter Zion, a seventh grader, to Eastpointe Middle School.

“They were very welcoming,” she said. “It was very pleasant. It was clean.”

Zion and Danelle Marsh.Courtesy of Danelle Marsh

But the district, in a racially and economically diverse community that borders Detroit, had faced years of academic and financial struggles. State policies that make it easy for Eastpointe residents to send their children to neighboring districts or to charter schools have driven down enrollment, gutting funding.

Financial mismanagement a decade ago triggered a pair of teacher pay cuts that slashed salaries by nearly 25 percent.

Lincoln Stocks, who leads the Eastpointe Federation of Educators, the district’s union, said the resulting low pay is the major reason why the district’s teacher turnover rate is significantly higher than the state average.

An Eastpointe High School teacher who left the district last year said she loved working for the district, but low pay and a series of leadership changes at her school made it tough to stay.

“When I left there, I was in tears,” said Julie Herchock, 49, a special education teacher who left Eastpointe in September 2020 and now makes $23,000 more a year teaching at a high school in Detroit where teachers have received a number of recent raises and bonuses. “When I did my exit interview, I just told them, ‘You know, I absolutely loved working there and if I got more money, I would definitely be there still.’”

Stocks had hoped the contract his union negotiated this year, which he said pays salaries ranging from $42,000 to $72,000, would make the district more competitive.

He didn’t realize, however, that billions of dollars in Covid relief funds would shift the goal posts of teacher pay in the Detroit area.

“It was competitive when we signed it, but a lot of people went back and renegotiated when their budgets were impacted by Covid relief money, and they were able to create economic offers that we couldn’t compete with,” he said, noting that one teacher got an $18,000 raise by taking a job in another district.

Eastpointe started the school year Aug. 30 with 40 vacancies across its seven buildings — nearly a quarter of the 163 teachers it needed to be fully staffed, McLeod said.

The district managed to keep its schools open for a few weeks by using administrators as substitutes and asking teachers to cover classes during prep periods. But by Sept. 16, the departures reached a breaking point.

“My job is to protect safety, health, the integrity of the instruction and the professionalism of my teachers,” Stephanie Fleming, the middle school principal, said, noting that she shifted classes online because the virus threat made it unwise to double students up in classrooms and because she didn’t want to fill vacancies with unqualified substitute teachers.

Eastpointe returned to in-person classes Monday after finalizing hires that had been in the works, but the disruption left families rattled.

For Marsh, it created another burden for her family still adjusting to its recent move and still reeling from the death this year of Zion’s grandfather.

“We’re trying to navigate the stresses of this pandemic and the rearranging, but it’s a lot,” she said. “I hope it gets worked out where the teachers get more pay, get what they’re deserving, so we can get back to focusing on our children.”

‘What the heck, it’s Christmas’

With school leaders around the country reporting dire staffing shortages, some teachers and administrators have expressed concern that the looming crisis they’ve been warning about for years — with falling teacher certification rates — has arrived, fueled by the extreme difficulties of teaching during the pandemic.

“It’s been a very, very rough period of time during this pandemic and many educators are just quitting, whether retiring, resigning or just looking for other jobs,” said Daniel Domenech, who leads AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “It’s been very stressful.”

But federal employment data shows that, in fact, there’s no evidence of a nationwide exodus of educators.

Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers for all of education, which includes both higher education and K-12 schools, show that, as of July, the number of people who’d left a job in education — including people who quit, retired or were fired — had hit a 20-year low, said Chad Aldeman, an education labor market analyst at the Edunomics lab.

The total number of people working in public education — including teachers, administrators, bus drivers and other school staff — is similar to what it was when the pandemic began in March 2020, he said. What’s different now is the number of job openings — they’re at a 20-year high.

Districts “have large infusions of federal money,” and ambitious plans to lower class sizes and hire teachers, counselors and nurses, Aldeman said. “But if every district has the same plan, then they’re competing for the same labor pool.”

Kelli Joseph, the superintendent of St. Helena Parish School District in rural Louisiana, said she’s always struggled to find staff given her district’s relatively low salaries and its location far from many teachers’ homes.

Joseph earmarked some of her district’s Covid relief dollars to pay teachers an extra $6,000 this summer in hopes of retaining them, but it wasn’t enough, she said. She has eight vacancies, meaning she’s missing a fifth of her teaching force and more than half of the teachers she needs in core subjects such as English and math.

“We just had a science teacher resign this week for more pay from another district,” she said. “It means our kids won’t have someone in front of them that can really teach them the content that they need to be successful.”

Teachers say money is only one factor they consider when looking for a new job, but salaries reflect how teachers are valued.

Susanne Sims, 40, said she got a nearly $10,000 raise this year — and work conditions more attuned to Covid safety — when she left one suburban district outside Detroit for another.

“I love teaching and do feel like it’s my life’s calling,” she said. “But if you don’t feel valued as a person and your talents don’t feel valued, it’s very hard to be good at your job.”

Covid relief dollars were distributed on a formula that sent more money to districts with the populations most in need. But districts had broad discretion in how to use their funds, and paying teachers was just one of a long list of urgent priorities.

In Eastpointe, McLeod said, his district earmarked some of its $18.5 million for building ventilation upgrades and buying books for classroom libraries. Other spending plans — like expanding a preschool program to serve all district 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds — have been hobbled by hiring issues.

Some school leaders have been reluctant to put the one-time Covid funding into hiring since the money will run out in three years, said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit research organization.

But there are only so many things districts can do that don’t involve hiring, she said.

“A lot of districts pretty much decided, ‘What the heck, it’s Christmas,’ and have been hiring a ton.”

While that is creating challenges for some districts, Linda Darling-Hammond, president of California state board of education, hopes it will lead to better pay for teachers in the future.

“It’s a moment,” said Darling-Hammond, who is also founder of the Learning Policy Institute, an education policy think tank, “where it’s harder to take educators for granted.”

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