Recruitment opportunities dry up, teachers back out as districts look to hire for fall

Children play on the sea ice in Diomede, Alaska on March 13, 2013. They can’t stray too far from the village, lest they either meet a polar bear or cross the International Date Line, a mere 1 mile away. Diomede school is part of the Bering Strait School District in northwest Alaska. This district is always challenged to find teachers to fill positions, but the pandemic has made it that much harder. (Photo credit: Loren Holmes)

It’s hiring season for school districts across the country. While students prepare for graduation and summer vacation, administrators are focusing on filling anticipated job vacancies for the upcoming school year. 

But, the pandemic is making it difficult to recruit teachers to the state, especially in rural Alaska.

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Bobby Bolen is the superintendent of the Bering Strait School District, home to 15 schools in Northwest Alaska surrounding Nome, with just under 2,000 students.

“We are all obviously remote bush villages,” he said “We don’t have any roads, we are remote in by airplane pretty much.”

Normally right now, Bolen and other staff members would be at recruitment fairs across the country looking for teachers willing to sign up for the ultimate Alaska adventure. 

Bolen said he had already been to job fairs in Missouri and Iowa, and was scheduled to attend about 30 others across the country just as the pandemic settled in.  

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“That’s kind of our way to sell our district is face to face,” he said. “Talk about Alaska, talk about the unique experiences you can get in rural communities.”

Not only did those face-to-face opportunities to recruit disappear, teachers that were hired, are starting to back out. 

Bolen said at least four teachers have already asked to be let out their contracts for the coming school year. And, around 20 teachers that he’s offered positions to did not accept them due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus. 

Bolen said applicants were worried about what healthcare options would be available to them, they didn’t want to get stuck somewhere while traveling and they were reconsidering being so far away from family and friends.

It doesn’t help that the regional airline that serviced the area recently went bankrupt as a result of the coronavirus, making it more difficult to get in or out of the region, he said.

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Lisa Parady is the executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators. She said she’s heard similar struggles and challenges around unfilled positions from administrators all over the state including Chugach, Alaska Gateway and Haines school districts.  

Schools were struggling with teacher, principal and superintendent turnover even before the pandemic, Parady said. 

“So it’s really just exacerbated what we were already struggling with prior to now,” she said. “Will this be the worst ever? Quite possibly.”

Teacher recruitment isn’t as much of an issue for urban districts that educate the majority of the state’s students. 

Anchorage School District administrators say just over half of teachers come from Outside. They’ve already pivoted to a virtual recruitment strategy, though, and are optimistic that they’ll be able to fill open positions. 

But, the state Department of Early Education and Development has already seen a 30 percent drop in the number of people applying for teacher certifications this year. 

And with the School of Education at the University of Alaska Anchorage discontinuing it’s initial licensing programs last year, the University of Alaska system expects to graduate just 158 teaching students this year who may or may not decide to become teachers. 

That number is far short of the nearly 1,000 positions that are typically hired across the state annually.

Official data on the pandemic’s effect on teacher recruitment isn’t available but the initial outlook isn’t good, especially considering the state’s broader economic situation, said Dayna DeFeo. DeFeo is an education policy researcher at the UAA.

“Anybody who’s going to be relocating, looks at what’s going on,” she said. “And the fiscal uncertainty in the state, and the dollars going to education dwindling, is enough to raise the eyebrows of any teacher.”

DeFeo also said that teachers’ jobs have drastically changed in the past few months, which can be yet another challenge for recruitment. 

“I think it’s a big question is: What is the job that we need people to do? Are we needing people to deliver a lot of instruction via distance, either online or packets kids take home?” she said. “We always have a hard time filling these jobs. But (now) we don’t even know what the jobs look like yet.”

Bolen, in the Bering Strait region, said teachers are expected to report to work on August 12, but as with so much else during this time, he’s not certain how many will return.