Rear view of elementary students raising their hands on a class.

‘When districts can’t find teachers, students suffer.’ Here’s why teacher shortages are disproportionately hurting low-income schools

Shana Bolden’s day begins at 4 a.m. As a teacher in the West Bolivar Consolidated School District in the Mississippi Delta, she teaches 11th and 12th grade AP biology. And chemistry, and human anatomy and physiology.

She not only shuttles between teaching all those subjects, but does so between two separate schools. Every other day, Bolden travels to one of the schools to instruct in-person learning, while students in the other school do remote work. The next day, the process is reversed.

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Bolden’s long days can be grueling, but she says she does it all for the children. And though she knows that the district is vastly under-resourced – her classrooms don’t have science labs, for example – and that the rotating schedule isn’t ideal for the kids, she says she keeps going because the district lacks qualified teachers.

“It’s a really tough schedule to follow. And this year, I’m just basically trying to take one day at a time,” Bolden said.

The school district’s superintendent, Will Smith, said Spanish classes are taught in a similar way, with one teacher covering two schools, as were 7th and 8th grade math up until October.

Before the start of the school year, many school districts across the country scrambled to hire enough faculty and staff. But the pain is not felt evenly, with high-poverty school districts struggling to fill more open positions than higher-income districts. In those districts, the problem also isn’t new, with officials saying they’ve had staffing shortages for at least a decade.

In West Bolivar, students take online classes for higher level math. Teaching assistants help those students as well as the students who share a teacher across schools, said Smith, who’s also been a teacher and school principal. But the schools were short on teaching assistants too, Bolden said. The assistant who works in her classrooms when she’s not there was out for medical reasons from the beginning of the year until October– a total of six weeks.

West Bolivar’s school district is 94 percent Black, and all of the students in the district are eligible for free and reduced lunches, Smith said.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher’s union, knows the struggle low-income districts face.

She began teaching in Philadelphia in the 1980s, before going on to spend the bulk of her career in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

“Those are the schools I taught in at the beginning of my career, so I know it, I saw it firsthand – the schools that have been underserved for decades. This is not new. This is chronic, it’s systemic. It absolutely is tied to the systemic racism and economic inequalities and injustices that are in every social system,” she said.

The pandemic “compounded” and “shed the light” on the inequalities facing high-poverty districts, Pringle said. Teachers have been buying supplies and covering gaps in the system for generations, she said. This is a problem that is felt across the country. A 2018 study found 94 percent of public school teachers across the country bought school supplies with personal money, spending an average of $478 during one school year.

But in high-poverty communities, where students and families are hungry, or there aren’t enough teachers to offer sufficient classes for students, teachers can’t solve all existing problems, Pringle added.

“The educators in those places do the best they can, but they can’t keep standing in every gap where all the systems have failed those students and their families. They can’t do it. And so we see the shortages being higher there than they are in other places because of the chronic underfunding,” she said.

The differing impacts of teacher shortages

As in-person learning resumed last school year, reports of a national teacher shortage grew. California and Oklahoma decreased the number of exams prospective teachers needed to take to get certified. Some schools in Missouri have switched to a four-day school week. Florida notably is allowing military veterans with no teaching experience to lead classrooms while they earn credentials.

The Institute of Education Sciences surveyed schools in June and found more than 60 percent of schools were concerned about filling vacancies — consistent between both higher and lower-income districts.

But data show that while concerns are shared across the board, the actual numbers are more lopsided.

By August, as the 2022-2023 school year began, 58 percent of schools in neighborhoods where poverty is higher were struggling to fill teaching vacancies. Meanwhile, in areas where people make more than twice the federal poverty threshold, 51 percent of schools were understaffed.

And according to federal data from January, in areas where people make more than twice the federal poverty threshold, nearly 60 percent of schools had no vacancies. But only 44 percent of schools in areas where people make less than that amount were fully staffed.

Meanwhile, 15 percent of schools in those lower-income areas had more than one in 10 staffing positions vacant – nearly twice the 8 percent reported by schools in higher-income areas.

That’s consistent among nearly every academic subject as well. In schools with at least one vacancy, 34 percent of lower-income schools have an opening for English or language arts and 38 percent had an opening in biology or life sciences at the beginning of the school year. A whopping 51 percent of schools in lower-income districts with at least one vacancy have openings in tutoring and general elementary education.

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But in higher-income school districts, the numbers aren’t as dire. Of schools reporting a vacancy, 21 percent have openings in English, 17 percent have openings in biology, 36 percent have openings in tutoring and 40 percent have openings in general elementary.

The consequences of the staff shortages mean different things for higher and lower-income school districts. While higher income districts report greater rates of teacher-sharing, lower-income districts are more likely to offer fewer student services and extracurriculars and larger class sizes, according to the IES survey.

And federal data show these trends are consistent among schools with more students who are Black, Hispanic, Asian or another racial minority. Those schools are also much more likely to increase class sizes and offer fewer extracurricular activities than schools that are at least three-quarters white.

That’s reflected in Bolden’s experience as well, she said.

“In rural districts, in poor states like Mississippi, they get hit the hardest as far as the equity issue, the lack of resources. You know, the kids that are coming from systemic poverty and [with] these generational issues, it is different… It’s a different ballgame,” Bolden said.

Disadvantaging students

When districts can’t find teachers, students suffer, said Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators. Amid shortages, schools can’t offer a wide variety of classes, and sometimes cut more advanced subjects, such as upper-level math classes. And students who can’t take those classes can’t demonstrate those skills to scholarships and colleges, putting them at a disadvantage for future prospects, compared to their peers whose schools offer those classes.

“When it comes to scholarship opportunities, many of our students in our rural areas, our impoverished areas, miss out,” Jones said.

If those students pursue post-secondary education, they also might be behind their peers who’ve taken more advanced classes, Jones added. As a result, students in districts facing severe teacher recruitment and retention problems can be impacted in ways that follow them throughout their education.

Bolden said that she’s had students who’ve excelled regardless of their circumstances, but for the vast majority of her children, they’ll be behind.

The reasons for the shortages vary, and can range from retirements and recruitment challenges to teacher burnout. Recruitment and burnout are especially difficult problems for lower-income districts, said Micca Knox, assistant state director for Save the Children in Mississippi, where she helps implement programs that fill in the gaps in an underfunded public school system.

“What we see happen is they burn out quickly and then they leave the profession altogether when they don’t have the support that’s needed,” said Knox, also a former elementary school teacher and principal.

“Our goal is to work in those rural areas across Mississippi because the economic barriers that our students face really impact how they perform academically,” Knox said. “We really see that teacher shortage in the areas that we work in with our program.”

Save the Children also provides supplemental resources to understaffed schools, such as tutoring and small group rotations.

The pandemic exacerbated the stressors teachers in all areas face, she said. But in lower-income districts, teachers also had to contend with children’s food insecurity, internet access difficulties and other entrenched inequalities that were highlighted by the sudden shift to remote learning.

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“I definitely think it’s been a years-in-the-making problem. And I think that the pandemic really just highlighted it, and elevated the issue that we were really facing,” said Knox, who was an assistant principal and principal between 2007 and 2012 in Jackson, Mississippi.

Often, Jones said, teachers in low-income communities live in multi-generational households, and fears of transmitting COVID-19 made them more hesitant to return to in-person work.

Lower-income districts, which pay less than the already low pay offered by other districts, face more recruitment issues, Pringle said. Many teachers who do work in low-income districts themselves attended those schools, she said. They return, hoping to give back, but run into all the challenges accompanying lower-income districts. Black graduates also tend to feel the impacts of student loan debt more than their white counterparts, so may find it more untenable to stay in low-paying, high-stress positions.

“That additional stress, that means that they’re leaving at disproportionate rates which a lot of people don’t talk about. So it’s not just the recruitment issue, it’s a retention issue, and our Black and brown teachers tend to leave at a higher rate,” Pringle said.

“Because they’re teaching in those harder-to-staff schools, they’re coming from a place where they don’t have the wealth to try to stand in the gaps, and they have mountains of debt that they can’t pay,” she said.

There are also often fewer pools to draw from in high-poverty areas. Teachers often come from local colleges, graduating immediately from certification programs to classroom work. But many rural Mississippi counties don’t have colleges and universities nearby, Knox said.

“They’re not looking into those rural areas to go and work, and there isn’t much to entice them to those areas either,” Knox said.

Smith, superintendent of the West Bolivar school district, said that’s a problem he’s found as well, with local universities not graduating nearly enough teachers to fill the gaps. Others would rather work in higher-income areas, like north Mississippi, which has Memphis suburbs.

Knox, Pringle and Jones all said improving teachers’ morale in the profession would go a long way to reducing shortages. That could look like higher pay, as Knox and Pringle argued, hearkening back to the teacher strikes of 2019, when educators took to the streets to demand raises. This year Mississippi public schools raised their starting salary from $37,000 to $41,500. By comparison, the median household income in the U.S. was $70,784 in 2021, according to Census figures.

But some teachers feel like their profession is just generally not appreciated, Jones said.

“Our educators are mistreated … And they’re also being told what to teach. They don’t have any ability to choose what they’re teaching in their classrooms,” Jones said.

In high-poverty areas, schools are the “safety net” for children, Knox said, often providing support, attention, stability and even food that they don’t get at home, where parents may be struggling.

“When those sort of things are missing, it’s just a continuum of suffering for those kids and for those families when they don’t have those resources … But if schools are having trouble with staffing, it’s hard to provide that sort of safety that families and kids are looking for from our schools,” Knox said.