Illinois is facing a statewide teacher shortage and school districts in rural areas have reported the most severe problems, according to a new survey.
The 2020 Illinois Educator Shortage Study, released this week by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, says most Illinois districts believe the problem is getting worse.
"We need more teachers," said Lorie LeQuatte, the regional superintendent overseeing 22 school districts in Franklin, Johnson, Massac and Williamson counties. "We need to encourage people to become teachers, we need to promote the positive aspects of K-12 education."
Nearly 600 Illinois districts responded to the survey. More than half said their rural locations make it harder to attract young teachers.
Southeastern Illinois* reported some of the most intense shortages. About 80% of districts in the region responded to the 2020 survey, and 84% of them said they don't have enough available teachers. Moreover, superintendents in the region say the problem is getting worse.
"Even five years ago, we would post for an elementary classroom teacher, we may get, you know, 20, 30 applications, and now we're lucky to get five," LeQuatte said.
Of the 96 school districts in the southeast region that responded, 16 had to cancel a class or a program due to not having a qualified teacher to manage it and 15 had to move a class online for the same reason.
Du Quoin Unit District 300 is among the districts that responded to the survey. Superintendent Matt Hickam said they have had to work a lot harder in the last five years to get a decent number of applicants for jobs.
"We used to put it in the paper or on our website and then wait for the applicants to come in," he said Thursday. Now, he said, they are posting jobs on Facebook and three different jobs databases, as well as personally reaching out to colleges and university and attending career fairs (virtual ones, these days).
"Those are things we never had to do before," Hickam said, adding he is also looking two or three years into the future for applicants, having a good idea about pending retirements.
Hickam said statistics show that most young people who go into teaching end up working within 30 miles of where they graduated from high school. Which is good news for rural districts, but there are fewer kids going into teaching across the board.
He said District 300 just hired a special-education teacher out of a pool of four applicants. "We were fortunate," Hickam said, not only to have four applicants but that all of them were good.
The Du Quoin school board held a special meeting Thursday night to fill a school counseling position, as Hickam didn't want to wait for the regular board meeting on March 18.
"We need to hire someone before they are hired by somebody else," he said.
Matt Donkin, superintendent of the West Frankfort schools, said the pandemic and remote learning has worsened the gap between high-performing students and others. Some students need to repeat a grade, and as the district explores options for breaking math classes down into smaller classes of students at similar skill levels, they wonder where the space and staff will come from.
"This something that we will have to address next year, but it's not just next year," Donkin said. "We will be dealing with this for years to come."
The southeast region also reports maintaining a reliable pool of substitute teachers has gotten more difficult.
Most substitutes at LeQuatte's school districts have usually been retired teachers. Now, because of the COVID-19 hazard, the pool of qualified substitutes has shrunk and her schools are starting to hire full-time substitute teachers.
She said substitute teacher pay has risen in some areas, as local districts compete with one another to find people.
To deal with the current lack of qualified teachers, the study suggests hybrid and remote learning to increase access when a teacher is not available, along with a credit recovery system for students who miss integral classes because of COVID-19 and teacher shortages.
In the long run, the survey says, state agencies should develop improved and more targeted pipeline programs to shepherd and incentivize potential educators who are currently high schoolers in rural districts. The idea is to make it worth their while to go to college in Illinois and then return to their rural communities as teachers once they complete their degree.
Hickam said Du Quoin and six other southern Illinois districts are addressing the need for homegrown teachers in a partnership with SIU that got underway this school year.
The Future Teacher program recruits high school students interested in an education career, by mentoring and making dual credit classes available. Du Quoin is also involved with an extracurricular group called Educators Rising, that has high school and college chapters and focuses on supporting future educators with instruction and activities.
Hickam said not only are they interesting in supporting future teachers but also those who will become education support staff.
"I know we have all had teachers in our lives who have made an impact," LeQuatte said. "I hope that this educator shortage survey can open some eyes and get things moving faster."
• Renee Trappe with the Du Quoin Call and Marilyn Halstead with The Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale contributed to this report.
* The survey includes Alexander, Crawford and Clinton counties as part of "southeastern Illinois," so it covers pretty much all of southern Illinois.