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Raising Demands and Reducing Capacity: COVID-19 and the Educator Workforce


This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

We’re hearing a lot of conflicting scenarios and projections related to the teacher workforce come fall. On the one hand, there is fear of massive layoffs precipitated by the COVID-19 recession and state budget cuts. On the other, there are projections of staffing shortages, as districts prepare to reopen schools safely with sufficient social distancing in place, while facing retirements and resignations of teachers who do not want to teach under current conditions. Furthermore, shortages of qualified teachers in fields like math, science, and special education were already widespread before the pandemic closed schools this spring.

Layoffs or shortages—which is it? Indicators of teacher demand and supply—including the number of teaching and other positions funded, the number required to deliver instruction safely, turnover rates, and the supply of new teachers coming out of teacher preparation programs—can help us begin to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the educator workforce.

Layoffs Are Looming…

As states face the effects of massive unemployment, dramatically reduced tax revenues, and skyrocketing costs for healthcare and social services, education budgets are being cut, with inevitable consequences for the teacher workforce. The fallout is already happening. According to the Economic Policy Institute, more k–12 public education jobs were lost this past April than in all of the Great Recession. Half of these losses were among special education teachers, tutors, and teaching assistants. Losses were also significant among counselors, nurses, custodians, and other building maintenance staff.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, more k–12 public education jobs were lost this past April than in all of the Great Recession.

And this is likely just the tip of the iceberg. A prior analysis from the Learning Policy Institute found that a 15% reduction in state contributions to education funding—a reasonable estimate given state budget cuts playing out across the country—could result in the loss of nearly 320,000 teaching positions nationwide, or about 8% of the public school teaching workforce. This is nearly triple the downsizing we saw during the Great Recession, when significant federal investment of nearly $100 billion helped save 275,000 education jobs.

Such a federal investment has not yet materialized in this downturn. The CARES Act allocated only $13 billion to k–12 education for the extraordinary costs of the COVID-19 pandemic. The much-awaited HEROES Act, which could allocate another $60 billion, is still being considered in the U.S. Senate. While these are important investments, they do not come close to providing what is needed to stabilize the educator workforce.

…But Reopening Schools Safely May Require More Staff, Not Fewer

Layoffs represent only a part of the picture, however. At the same time states are making cuts and districts are issuing layoff notices, they are also making decisions about how to reopen schools. And this may require more staff, not fewer.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen many states begin to release their guidance about school reopening, and other countries have done the same. A key decision, with implications for staffing, is how schools will ensure social distancing—both keeping individuals (students and adults) at a safe distance from one another (3 to 6 feet) and reducing the number of people with whom an individual interacts face-to-face.

We’re seeing states and other countries recommend various approaches to accomplish social distancing in schools, including reducing class size, keeping students in a stable homeroom class, and using staggered school schedules so that fewer students attend school at the same time or are congregated in common areas at one time. Even while planning for in-person classes, schools also need to figure out how to maintain online learning for students who are unable to attend school for health reasons or who choose to stay home. All of these decisions have implications for staffing: on how many teachers and other staff will be needed, how they will be assigned, and the ways they will need to teach—whether in person, via distance learning, or in a blended environment.

Given the impact of COVID-19 on students’ mental and physical health—and the stress and trauma many students and families are experiencing from months of social isolation, unemployment, COVID-19-related illnesses, and the pressures of distance learning—more counselors, nurses, and support staff will likely be needed as well.

Katie McNamara, Superintendent of the South Bay Union School District in southern California, explained this conundrum to the California Assembly on June 16: “The level of difficulty in opening school is very high. [It] feels close to impossible without more staff,” said McNamara. And yet, she also noted, “I am confident that I will be making cuts to personnel in our future board meetings.”

The Big Unknown: COVID-19-Induced Departures

We know from prior research that about 90% of the annual demand for teachers nationwide is created by teachers leaving the profession—two thirds of whom leave for reasons other than retirement. The 8% annual attrition rate for U.S. teachers is about twice as high as that in countries such as Finland and Singapore, and it is related to the shortages we have experienced in recent years. Attrition next year could be much higher. In a USA Today poll conducted at the end of May, one in five teachers said they are unlikely to return if schools open in the fall, including one in four teachers over the age of 55. More than 80% said they are having a harder time doing their jobs.

In a USA Today poll conducted at the end of May, one in five teachers said they are unlikely to return if schools open in the fall, including one in four teachers over the age of 55.

Increased turnover is likely among older staff, who are considered at greater risk for infection. The American Enterprise Institute estimates that 17% of public school teachers are older than age 55—a number that varies widely by state. Staff who have underlying health conditions—or who live with someone who does—may also choose to leave the profession, rather than put themselves or loved ones at risk. Child care concerns may also keep some teachers out of the classroom if child care facilities do not reopen in sufficient numbers.

Longer-Term Ramifications for Supply, Diversity

During the pandemic, states struggled to ensure that the tens of thousands of candidates nearly ready to graduate from teacher preparation programs this past spring could complete the student teaching and testing requirements to earn a license or have extra time and support to do so while teaching on a temporary permit. It is unclear how many of these candidates made it through the gauntlets they had to manage and how many have decided they want to enter the profession at this time. What we do know is that, especially in shortage fields, districts are trying hard to hire them.

The Impact of the COVID-19 Recession on Teaching Positions

This related blog post, by LPI Senior Researcher and Policy Analyst Michael Griffith, analyses the potential impact of state budget cuts on teaching positions. Read the blog >

Less clear, however, is what the longer-term impact will be on enrollment in teacher education programs. During the last recession, widespread layoffs deterred young people from entering teaching while higher education suffered budget cuts. This led to fewer slots in educator preparation programs that have been challenging to restore and set the stage for even greater shortages when the hiring resumed.

National data on teacher preparation enrollments for next fall are not available. An informal survey of the 15 educator preparation programs in the Educator Preparation Laboratory—a mix of public and private programs from across 10 states—suggests that, while enrollment is relatively stable now, deferments are on the rise. Enrollments were already much lower than needed in shortage fields, which bodes poorly for addressing those critically needed positions with fully trained candidates.

COVID-19 and ensuing state cuts to higher education will make it even harder for students from low-income families to access higher education, including high-quality teacher preparation programs. Already, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the higher education plans of people of color, with half of Latinos and about 40% of Black and Asian Americans canceling or otherwise changing their plans, including delaying enrollment, reducing courses, or switching institutions. This raises concerns for efforts to increase the diversity of the teacher workforce, which will be difficult to accomplish without additional higher education and college affordability investments.

Layoffs and Shortages Are Likely to Coexist

History shows that even in times of recession and layoffs, there continue to be shortages in high-need fields and locations. In fact, throughout the Great Recession, even as tens of thousands of teachers were being laid off, states continued to face shortages. For example, in 2009–10, 49 states reported shortages to the U.S. of Department of Education in special education, 48 in mathematics, and 47 in science. These general trends have remained throughout the decade since.

The same may be true today. As Jim Brescia, Superintendent of Schools for California’s San Luis Obispo County, told me in mid-June, “We’re still struggling to fill the challenging positions, like special ed, bilingual, specialty services, so in the midst of laying people off we do still have openings, and that’s true across the ten districts in our county. The hard-to-fill positions are still hard to fill.” In fact, a search of EdJoin, a national education job board, for open teaching positions in mid-June indicated a total of 9,616 job vacancies in California alone. While California’s shortages may be larger, similar dynamics are at play in districts around the country.

Equity Implications Are Clear

Disruptions in the teaching workforce have consequences for every district, but research shows that high-poverty districts experienced a disproportionate share of funding and staffing cuts following the Great Recession. These cuts negatively impacted student outcomes and widened achievement gaps between high-poverty and low-poverty districts. When there are shortages of qualified teachers, students of color and students from low-income families bear the burden, a pattern that has recurred time and time again, from North Carolina to New York to California, with significant negative impacts on academic achievement.

In other words, the stakes are high, especially for the students furthest from opportunity—and who had access to far fewer resources during the pandemic-induced school closures in the spring. Significant federal assistance—at least $230 billion—will be needed to stabilize staffing and cover other COVID-19-related costs. Without these resources, we will struggle to reopen schools safely and get parents back to work. Inaction carries with it long-term consequences—for our students and for our economy.

Tara Kini is the Chief of Staff and Director of State Policy of LPI.