Mar 04 2021

California Teachers and COVID-19: How the Pandemic Is Impacting the Teacher Workforce

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, policymakers’ attention is increasingly focused on efforts to safely reopen schools for in-person instruction and address lost instructional time for students. However, critical teaching shortages, a challenge that predates the pandemic but has worsened in many districts since its emergence, may jeopardize schools’ ability to safely reopen or stay open.

Longstanding shortages, which are often most acute in high-need fields and high-need schools, appear to be growing more severe due to a range of pandemic-related factors, including rising early retirements and resignations and a reduced pipeline of incoming teachers. In California and across the country, many districts are meeting hiring needs with teachers on substandard credentials and permits or increasingly relying on substitute teachers, who are also in short supply.

As districts shift to in-person instruction, many expect shortages to worsen even further with the need to reduce class sizes for physical distancing, which requires additional staff.

That matters because the failure to recruit and retain well-prepared teachers undermines student achievement, with the most severe impacts on students from low-income families and students of color. It also jeopardizes school reopening because in-person learning may require a greater number of teachers to accommodate physical distancing or provide intensive tutoring.

This report investigates the impact of the pandemic on key aspects of teacher supply and demand, including increasing resignations, retirements, turnover, and vacancies, and the number of new teachers joining the profession. Researchers interviewed leaders from eight of the largest California districts (see Table 1), which collectively serve nearly one in six California students. In addition, researchers interviewed leaders from nine small, rural districts since these are also frequently subject to shortages.

The report describes five findings based on common themes that arose in the interviews:

  1. Teacher shortages remain a critical problem.
  2. Teacher pipeline problems are exacerbated by state testing policies for teacher licensure and inadequate financial aid for completing preparation.
  3. Teacher workload and burnout are major concerns.
  4. Growing retirements and resignations further reduce supply.
  5. Teacher residencies and preparation partnerships have proved important to recruitment.

Leaders in both urban and rural districts described educators going above and beyond to continue to educate California students amid the pandemic. Still, ongoing teacher shortages make that a challenge. Since the onset of the pandemic, some districts are experiencing upticks in retirements, resignations, and leaves of absence. Shortages in small, rural districts are especially severe, particularly in specific subject areas such as math and science.

As districts shift to in-person instruction, many expect shortages to worsen even further with the need to reduce class sizes for physical distancing, which requires additional staff. Adding to the challenge, many district leaders described a severe substitute teacher shortage that puts additional strain on the teacher workforce.

Research has identified effective key strategies that develop a reliable pool of well-prepared recruits who are more likely to stay in the profession. The report provides six policy recommendations to address shortages. Among them: building high-retention pathways into the profession and providing financial supports to make entering the profession affordable.

High-retention pathways into the profession include teacher residencies and grow-your-own programs. Districts that had such programs in place noted how important they have been for maintaining a strong and predictable supply of well-qualified educators. In California, these include the Teacher Residency Program and the Classified School Employees Credentialing Program. Financial support for teacher candidates, such as California’s Golden State Teacher Grant Program, can be an effective strategy to both recruit and retain new teachers for high-need subjects and locations.

While the report focuses on California, the challenges highlighted will be familiar to education leaders across the U.S.


This research was supported by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, and Sandler Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.

California Teachers and COVID-19: How the Pandemic Is Impacting the Teacher Workforce by Desiree Carver-Thomas, Melanie Leung, and Dion Burns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.