(NEW YORK) -- More than three-quarters of U.S. states are experiencing a teacher shortage, highlighting a growing concern among public education and government officials about challenges that were exacerbated during three years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on pandemic learning published in June 2022 found that public education lost about 7% of its total teaching population (233,000) between 2019 and 2021 -- with many educators, in phone calls, text messages and interviews with ABC News, citing strict time demands, persisting behavioral issues and lack of administrative support, among other obstacles.
According to the education departments, agencies and associations surveyed for this story, staffing issues have continued.
"Our nation is undergoing a mass exodus of teachers leaving the classroom," Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., told ABC News in December. "We can choose to take this issue head on or lose America's teachers and have the education of our students severely impacted."
Between October and the end of January, ABC News reached out by phone and email to the overarching education departments in all 50 states as well as Washington. D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
For all 53, ABC News asked if they were experiencing any shortages or extreme staffing vacancies and, if so, what their greatest need was in terms of subject-matter position openings.
As of Feb. 9, at least 39 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands -- 41 out of 53 surveyed -- reported ongoing shortages. Many also reported subject matter vacancies in areas such as physical and special education and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Sabrina McCall, the Anderson, South Carolina, School District Five director of human resources and teacher effectiveness, told ABC News that the No. 1 contributing factor in her district has been student misbehavior.
"It's difficult to overcome," she said. "They [the teachers] have a lot on their plate. And when you add student behaviors in there, it sometimes just messes up the entire plate."
From Kentucky and Idaho's communications officers' statements calling the teacher shortage a "crisis" to several Missouri school districts implementing four-day weeks as a recruitment and retention tool, some states, as the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) put it, are still facing "unprecedented" staffing challenges.
One outside expert, however, said the data on vacancies doesn't tell a simple story.
Jess Gartner, the founder & CEO of Allovue, a company that combines financial technology with education data, suggested the nation's shortage situation is "complicated."
"Part of what's driving what feels like a very acute challenge or crisis right now -- it seems from the data -- is more driven by the creation of new positions than a mass exodus of existing staff," she said.
Where are the shortages?
ABC News received responses from 49 of the 50 states' education departments and related groups, making multiple efforts to reach Rhode Island, whose state officials have yet to respond to email and phone requests.
Many states say they're still surveying district data and compiling vacancy statistics that will be released later this year. Puerto Rico did not have its data; neither did Georgia, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon or Tennessee.
Florida, New Hampshire and New Mexico did not report shortages and Louisiana said it didn't believe it was having a teaching shortage either.
Texas education officials said the state "is employing more teachers this school year than ever before, and new teacher production numbers remain high. However, as with many states, Texas public school systems have had a challenging time filling vacant positions due to various factors."
Despite some states missing vacancy tallies for the 2022-2023 school year, the federal government reported public schools have been experiencing difficulties filling teaching vacancies for more than two full school cycles, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
In Alaska, the state described "significant challenges" and a pressing need for special education teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists and more. Across the country, in New York, officials pointed to openings for literacy and special education instructors as "two persistent" and statewide issues. And in Missouri, officials said their staffing problems were the result of "less supply" and "increased demand."
In South Carolina, McCall said her district pulled some aspiring educators from local apprenticeship programs to help fill positions left open from teachers quitting over the summer.
Separately, last October, NCES found particular vacancy problems in high-poverty, high-minority school districts. Barnard College professor Erika Kitzmiller believes the vacancy rate in low-income schools has worsened inequities that existed in education prior to the pandemic.
"There's clearly a strain on the system if we can't find teachers who are qualified to fill positions in high-need districts," Kitzmiller told ABC News. "We know that people [school districts] are having difficulty just finding people regardless of qualifications or competencies or effectiveness. And those vacancies are highly prevalent in low-income schools that predominantly serve Black and brown youth."
However, the vacancy issues are location-specific as well, according to education advocates. Urban and rural student populations often face acute shortages, said Gartner.
"The reality is that these experiences can vary a lot across geographies … even from one county to the next," Gartner explained.
"It is almost always true that when there are economic challenges and when there are curricular challenges or policy changes, those things hit our large urban school districts and our rural school districts the hardest," she added.
Some states see declining shortages
With data varying from district to district, not all states are feeling the same strain in the same way, if at all. Some tout above average statistics and say they have less to worry about than the areas with severe staffing issues.
For example, Alabama's state education officials said they were struggling to find "qualified teachers" in rural areas but the state's overall challenges are subsiding.
"Alabama, like most other states, has experienced teacher shortages in certain areas," the state said in December, adding, "It is not as urgent as it has been in the past."
In contrast, the number of educators in New Hampshire has been steadily increasing, according to a July 2022 report released by its state education department.
"While there may be teacher shortages in certain subjects and certain locations throughout New Hampshire – specifically special education, paraprofessional, and STEM positions – the educator shortage has not worsened, overall," wrote Stephen Appleby, director of the New Hampshire Education Department's Division of Educator Support and Higher Education.
"Instead, it has improved during the past two years," Appleby wrote.
New Mexico, which last year sent in the National Guard to aid short-staffed school districts, saw a 34% decrease in the 2022 teacher vacancy rate, according to a statewide report. The state also touts the highest average teacher compensation throughout the Southwest region.
"Improved teacher salaries have been an important incentive to get people back into the classroom and New Mexico's teachers appreciate the hard work of Gov. [Michelle] Lujan Grisham and the Legislature to make this happen," the state's teacher's union president, Mary Parr-Sanchez, said in a statement.
Florida's education department said it only saw 2% of its teaching positions unfilled to start the 2022-2023 school year, thanks to its recruitment and retention strategies.
The education department also had hundreds of qualified veterans apply for temporary teaching certificates, and it gave bonuses to retired military veterans and first responders who committed to at least two years of teaching. Last year, Florida recorded the largest teacher salary raise in its history, boosting the average starting salary from $40,000 to $48,000. In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed investing $1 billion that could raise teacher salaries again.
From Tennessee -- whose Grow Your Own program was the first in the nation to have a recognized apprenticeship program through the U.S. Labor and Education departments -- to Texas' Teacher Vacancy Task Force, most states have been trying varied approaches to help crack the shortage issue.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed an executive order establishing a task force to combat his state's public education challenges.
"Unfortunately, our state is no exception to the national teacher shortage currently straining our education system," Murphy said in a statement. "With a critical need for learning recovery and acceleration as well as mental health support for our students, teachers and other school staff are more essential than ever," he said.
But Gartner warns that if states didn't fill the hardest hit positions during the fall, now might be too late.
"If you've got dozens or hundreds of those same positions open, is it likely that you're going to fill them this far into the year? Probably not. So what's plan B?" she asked, adding, "That is not an enviable decision to make. Because what you're really saying is we now have to spend money on our second-best resource or our third-best resource that we would prefer to have because the resource simply is not available."
Some vacancies point to funding for increased support
With the federal government providing nearly $200 billion in elementary and secondary school emergency funds during the pandemic, Gartner believes the overall data on district vacancies has been conflated because that money is being sent to states and local education agencies to create new positions to help students with their social, emotional and mental health needs.
That addition of federal dollars also caused a 57% spike in new job openings in public education, according to Gartner.
But most of the relief money goes to address severe staffing challenges at high-need or the low-income public schools, as designated under Title I, and Gartner said the funding was allocated proportionally. Still, there's not enough money for the increased vacancies created by the combination of quitting teachers and extra positions, which Gartner suggests compounds the challenges that these schools normally see.
"You're going to have some districts where they're probably seeing higher than typical quit rates [voluntary resignations]," the educator, who has taught in schools around the world, told ABC News. "They have more job openings available right now, so that gap is really large."
Gartner said the so-called teacher exodus doesn't outpace other professions. Government data supports this view: From January 2017-January 2022, K-12 employee quit rates were down compared to the private sector, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Even in the midst of a lot of turmoil, a lot of economic volatility, a lot of heightened stress, we're still seeing consistently lower rates of attrition in public education than we are in nearly any other industry," Gartner said.