By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
The national shortage in teachers has reached Wyoming.
Multiple education experts blamed the pandemic for an apparent shortfall of prospective teachers for Wyoming’s K-12 schools. But some disagreed on the pandemic’s actual effect.
“We’re starting to see the very beginnings of a teacher shortage across the state,” said Wyoming Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, “and maybe COVID had something to do with that.”
Paxton worked in education for 34 years and now co-chairs the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee.
Paxton said many superintendents and principals have reported difficulties hiring and getting responses to job openings. He said the issue is so pressing that he intends to bring it as a top priority for interim legislative work to the Legislature’s Management Council this Friday.
Wyoming’s brief school shutdown in the spring of 2020 and the mask mandate that followed were, Paxton said, not as severe as measures undertaken by other states – but still enough to cause teacher burnout.
“You try to keep a mask on a 4-year-old kid for a while and see how that winds up,” said Paxton, adding that social distancing was another hurdle for a teacher overseeing a troop of little ones for seven hours.
Another difficulty, he said, could be that policies trickling down from faraway government leaders don’t suit local sentiments.
“Teaching critical race theory in classrooms is certainly a factor. It hasn’t hit Wyoming like it’s hit a lot of other states,” said Paxton. “But when parents see some of the things that are happening nationally, they start applying that to their local (schools) and even though it may not be a problem immediately, it certainly is a concern for them.”
Critical race theory is a racially-focused curriculum positing that patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other modern institutions.
Fewer University of Wyoming students are pursuing education degrees each year and fewer still are receiving them.
According to a September 2021 report to the Legislature, the number of bachelor’s degrees in education awarded by the UW has fallen from 255 in 2010 to 170 in 2021.
UW undergraduates majoring in education in 2010 numbered about 1,250. In 2020 and 2021, that number flatlined at about 700.
One of the real struggles, said Wyoming Indian Schools Superintendent Stephanie Zickefoose, isn’t necessarily filling the slots – it’s choosing the right candidates from a shrinking application pool every time a job comes up.
Zickefoose added that she has worked in other districts in Wyoming over the past 10 years and has seen a steady decline in interest in teaching to which pandemic struggles may have contributed.
“For Fremont (County School District No.) 14, we haven’t seen a lot of (COVID burnout),” said Zickefoose, but the biggest remaining restriction “is the masking mandate: we’re still under the tribal regulations.”
Because Wyoming Indian is on the Wind River Indian Reservation, it’s subject to a reservation-wide mask mandate, the only one still in place in the state.
“Our district doesn’t mandate vaccinations, as some of the other reservation districts do,” she said. “So we haven’t necessarily seen a huge (staffing) effect from the Covid restrictions.”
The pandemic may be a chief deterrent preventing some young people from going to school to obtain a teaching degree, Zickefoose added.
The teacher shortage predates COVID, but the pandemic didn’t help the situation, said Stephanie Thompson, vice chair for the Sweetwater County School District No. 1 school board.
“We’ve had a teacher shortage for years,” said Thompson. “I would say we probably felt it before some of the state.”
However, the district’s current vacancy notice is alarming, Thompson added.
“Just looking at that list, I get anxiety,” she said. “How are we going to fill all those positions?”
“COVID took such a strain on our staff, our students, our district, and I think we’re going to be seeing the impact for years, to be honest,” she continued.
The Rock Springs district has tried to stimulate interest in teaching by switching to a four-day school schedule and allowing teachers more professional development time.
‘Crisis Mode’ For Subs Too
There’s also a shortage of substitute teachers, said Marguerite Herman, school board vice chair for Laramie County School District No. 1 in Cheyenne, the state’s most populous district.
“Substitutes are kind of in crisis mode as well,” said Herman, who said the education spending plan passed last month by the Legislature may not have accounted sufficiently for the inflation now seen in Wyoming and across the nation.
“There’s supposed to be a recognition of the cost of education, inflation, whatever pressures – utilities – and they’ve denied a huge increase in personnel external cost adjustment… and that’s going to ripple through,” she said.”
Education funding has been a difficult topic in legislative budget sessions in recent years, with delegates in both chambers saying the school budget suffers from a “structural deficit.”
Herman acknowledged COVID burnout as well, as “teachers had to keep a whole different set of balls up in the air.”