The number of vacant teacher positions in South Carolina has increased by 88 percent in the last two school years, according to a report released by the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement.
The report found over 1,060 teaching positions sat vacant during September and October, a number that leaders for teacher associations in the state said is "shocking."
"That's 20 students per class times 1,000. Who is teaching those children?" asked Sherry East, president of the S.C. Education Association.
This number of vacancies is an increase of more than 50 percent compared to last year, and is the largest number of vacancies districts have reported since the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement started its Supply and Demand survey in 2001.
In a Nov. 30 press release, state Education Superintendent Molly Spearman said the report should "serve as a wakeup call for decision-makers at the state and local levels to act quickly to make certain that every child is served by an outstanding teacher and reaches their full potential.”
Teacher retention is a longstanding problem in South Carolina that's been exacerbated by the pandemic. Educators have either had to teach students over Zoom and other video platforms or assume the role of frontline workers teaching them in-person in classrooms where plastic shields surrounded desks and everyone was masked.
Many teachers believed the pandemic would ease this school year, but the highly transmissible delta variant spread through schools in August and September. A Post and Courier analysis of S.C. Department of Education data found that at least 15 districts and 233 schools went virtual during the first seven weeks of the 2021-22 school year, and over 150,000 students had to learn remotely.
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Every district has returned to in-person teaching, according to S.C. Department of Education data.
But on Nov. 26 the World Health Organization deemed the omicron variant a variant of concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control have not identified any cases of the variant in South Carolina. On Nov. 29, DHEC issued a statement saying it is "preparing for any potential threats posed by omicron and is already testing for it."
The survey also found that 6,900 educators who taught last year didn't return to teaching or service positions in the same district, an increase of 15 percent compared to the number from the 2018-19 to the 2019-2020 school years. Of those surveyed, 34 percent said they left for "external reasons," 18 percent said they retired and another 27 percent said they left for "personal reasons."
Patrick Kelly, the director for government affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, called the numbers "an incomplete picture" of why teachers were leaving their jobs.
Other recently released reports looking at the problems teachers were facing during and before the pandemic shed some light. The Charleston Teacher Alliance published a survey earlier this fall that found teachers were more burned out during the first few months of this school year than all of last year.
More than 80 percent of teachers said they were more exhausted this school year than last year, 66 percent said that they have considered quitting or retiring and 76 percent said they feel burned out.
Another survey from the South Carolina Teacher Education Advancement Consortium released in October found that while a desire to move or take early retirement was one of the main reasons teachers left their jobs, 14 percent said they left because they were dissatisfied with their school's administration.
East said that dissatisfaction with district or school leadership is one of the top reasons teachers leave their positions, but they typically don't disclose this in surveys or state reports because they "don't want to burn any bridges." She said teachers live in a "culture of fear" with regard to saying anything negative about a school's leadership, and don't want to speak out because, one day, they might come back and get a job in the district sometime in the future.
The Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement's Supply and Demand survey also found that 65 percent of the teachers who left had over five years of teaching experience. Kelly said this was unusual because educators who teach between three and five years typically become "if not lifetime teachers, lifetime educators."
But he wasn't surprised by the finding and considered it an outlier, pointing out that while virtual instruction was hard for both new and seasoned teachers, the more experienced ones needed to completely relearn how to educate students.
The survey did find that 23 percent of the teachers who left are teaching in another South Carolina public school district. Only 30 percent of first-year teachers did not return to teach the same position this school year, down from 36 percent the previous year.
The results from the survey were gathered from 83 South Carolina public school districts, career and technology centers and state agencies. It is sent out annually to gather information about teachers who are just starting in the field, those leaving for a new teaching job or exiting the profession altogether, and to gather information about vacant positions.