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    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    Shortages of staff and equipment continue to plague schools, new data shows

    Washington ― Nearly half of the nation's schools were still struggling to fill a teacher vacancy in October, according to data released Tuesday by the Education Department, which also found the teacher shortage disproportionately affected high-poverty schools and schools that served large numbers of students of color.

    The data also found that more than 4 in 5 schools were having difficulty buying food, technology and other supplies because of rising prices and chronic supply chain issues. And it found that the number of schools participating in the National School Lunch Program, which reimburses schools that provide free and discounted meals for students from low-income households, had dipped six percentage points.

    The data, collected by the department's National Center for Education Statistics, is drawn from a monthly survey of 990 schools across the country, a nationally representative sample.

    "These data show that teacher vacancies are not the only challenge facing schools this academic year," Peggy G. Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said in a news release. "The majority of schools have experienced problems acquiring necessities like food, electronics, and furniture because of supply-chain issues during this school year so far."

    The survey results show that schools are still facing a constellation of challenges tied to the pandemic, which also derailed academic progress for students. Elementary math and reading scores have dipped to lows not seen in decades.

    To deal with the crisis, Congress gave schools $122 billion in funding to help reopen schools, catch students up and respond to their mental health needs. But schools still face challenges spending the money, in part because they cannot find people to fill jobs.

    Supply chain issues fueled by labor shortages mean that equipment administrators seek to purchase may be back-ordered. It's why, earlier this year, less than 15 percent of the funding from Congress had been spent.

    About 83 percent of schools reported supply chain shortages. Nearly half said they were running into challenges purchasing laptops, and more than half were struggling to obtain food services.

    While 45 percent of all schools in the survey reported having a teaching vacancy, those numbers varied significantly based on the poverty levels and racial makeup of the student body. Students in low-poverty schools with greater percentages of White students, as well as schools in rural communities, had fewer difficulties filling vacancies than those in cities.

    Among schools that are more than 75 percent minority, 60 percent reported having at least one teaching vacancy. Among schools that are more than three-quarters White, that number dropped to 32 percent. And 57 percent of high-poverty schools reported at least one teaching vacancy, compared with 41 percent of low-poverty schools.

    The percentage of schools facing teaching vacancies has not changed significantly since June, when 44 percent of the schools surveyed reported a vacancy.

    Teacher shortages are hardly new, but states have begun employing unprecedented measures to find and hire educators. Many places are deploying long-term substitute teachers, who in many cases need only a high school diploma. Others have created training paths that don't require college diplomas. In Oklahoma, which has faced a decade of shortages, districts can now hire high school graduates.

    While schools are still working to spend down covid relief dollars, Congress has cut short one of the largest pandemic concessions: universal free lunch. From the start of the pandemic through the end of the last school year, the Agriculture Department, which runs the National School Lunch Program, allowed schools to serve free meals to all students, regardless of their family's income level.

    Congress ended the universal meal program in June, meaning qualifying poor families would once again have to apply to receive free meals. And in mid-October, 88 percent of the surveyed schools said they'd participated in the school meal program, compared with 94 percent last school year.

    Rachel Hansen of the National Center for Education Statistics said the center is working to figure out why fewer schools are participating, and to figure out whether the changes in meal eligibility made a difference.

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