SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — South Dakota already knew it had a need for teachers.

But then came the coronavirus.

“Teachers have been dealing with COVID-19 that last couple school years,” said Rob Monson, the executive director of the School Administrators of South Dakota. The COVID-19 pandemic forced school districts to use distance learning, hybrid learning and changed how daily classroom instruction operated.

“Veteran teachers who could take advantage of retirement said ‘I’m done, I’ve had enough,'” Monson said. Younger teachers, some who may be in their first years of teaching during COVID-19, decided they had enough and didn’t want to deal with something similar any time in the future, Monson said.

“They walked away,” Monson said.

A survey from the National Education Association showed that the pandemic had an impact on teachers nationwide. The survey said 32% of respondents said the pandemic led them to leave teaching sooner than anticipated. The numbers were higher for teachers with more than 20 years of experience and teachers of color, according to the survey.

A survey by the RAND Corporation showed that 1 in 4 teachers planned to retire at the end of the 2020-2021 school year compared to 1 in 6 in a non-pandemic year.

Another factor in the loss of teachers was retirement accounts fully matured under increases in teacher salaries that started in 2016. Monson said a group of teachers didn’t retire until five years into those increased salaries.

Loren Paul, the president of the South Dakota Education Association, said based on discussions with various districts, teachers and people involved in education such as Monson, there is a teacher shortage in South Dakota.

The full extent won’t be known for another month, Paul said.

The head of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, Wade Pogany, said there is a need for about 100 more positions as of last week compared to last year at the same time. There were 221 postings on the association’s teacher placement website last week, Pogany said.

The number of postings on the association’s website may not include every opening in the state. Schools post their openings on the website. The websites include positions in teaching, administration, coaching, classroom technicians and others.

Pogany said the 2021 numbers will include those who have left their positions but also new positions such as subject coaches who will help students catch up in subject areas because of losses during COVID-19.

Pogany said openings are across the state in all sizes of school districts. In some prior years, there were many openings in math and special education/special needs. Pogany said the 2021 openings are in more subject areas including fine arts and English.

A survey by Frontline education online said 71% of districts with shortages find it challenging to find Special Education teachers.

South Dakota vacancies from 2016 through July 27, 2021, are varied.

Using April as the month of comparison, there were 373 openings in 2017, 347 in 2018, 301 in 2019, 315 in 2020, and 551 in April.

There is a need for teachers right now but Pogany said school districts will open with qualified teachers to fill vacancies.

“Schools are doing the best they can,” Pogany said.

Openings could be filled by combining sections of an elementary classroom, for example, he said. A school may have two sections with 11 students each. Those two sections could be combined for one section of 22 students, Pogany said.

School districts may also share staff or use an outside source such as university, to teach a language class, Pogany said.

The need for teachers will likely continue after the 2021-2022 school year.

“I think it will rival what it was in 2015, before salary increases,” Paul said.

The Learning Policy Institute described the national teacher situation as a “leaky bucket” in 2016.

Front line education online said two-thirds of survey respondents report teacher shortages, a record high since it launched its first teacher shortage survey in 2015.

The Blue Ribbon task force

South Dakota has been studying a teacher shortage since at least 2015. The state’s 2015 Blue Ribbon Task Force for Teachers and Students identified the problem with recruitment and retention of teachers and identified ways to improve each.

The state reached its 2015 Blue Ribbon task force goal of increasing the average annual teacher pay from $40,000 to $48,000, the trouble is over six years other states were also increasing their teacher pay.

The state’s annual average teacher salary pay of $48,984 puts in 50th place in the nation, according to the National Education Association.

The state added a half cent sales tax to directly improve teacher pay.

“Even with that half cent…we still slipped to 50th again,” Monson said. It’s good that South Dakota increased its overall pay but if other states continue to increase their pay, the state can still lose ground, he said.

South Dakota ranks 36th in starting pay at $39,636, according to the NEA.

Paul said although the state now ranks 50th in average annual teacher pay it did gain ground on some of the pay offered in neighboring states.

South Dakota’s average annual pay is less than $10,000 than average annual pay in North Dakota and Nebraska. It lags further behind the annual pay in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wyoming.

Pogany said recruitment and retention improved after teacher salaries were raised several years ago.

“…we can’t let our foot off the gas pedal,” Pogany said.

South Dakota dropped in teacher pay ranking as the state built another budget reserve. The fiscal year 2021 budget reserve was $86 million. The state has a history of budget surpluses.

Monson said the education system is often in a position to “beg, borrow or steal” $3 million or $4 million from the state.

“To have a $15 million or an $80 million (surplus), it’s kind of a gut punch,” Monson said. Monson said it’s time for the state Legislature to discuss a philosophy on the budget surplus and if the budget needs to be adjusted for education.

Pay is one piece of recruiting, retaining teachers

“Salary is only part of it,” Paul said.

Teachers “are not being respected as the professionals they are,” Paul said.

“Public education has continuously under attack,” Monson said. The level of criticism in South Dakota may not be as high as on the national level but the environment is more negative than several years ago, he said.

Monson said teachers are in the classroom nine months a year but most spend summers in continuing education or doing things related to teaching.

Teachers and the education system have been criticized by politicians and the public, Monson and Paul said.

One of the most recent criticisms or claims is the accusation that teachers indoctrinate students on issues about race.

“That’s just frustrating. The political rhetoric has been on the upticks the last couple of years,” Paul said.

Education will always inspire strong opinions, Pogany said.

Pogany said discussion about the subject matter is important but it should be a healthy discussion. A good place for it is at the local level, he said.