BULLHEAD CITY, Ariz. — Carolyn Stewart had spent the past five months trying to find teachers for the Bullhead City School District, and now she walked into the Las Vegas airport holding up a sign with the name of her latest hire. The 75-year-old superintendent wandered through the international baggage claim, calling out a name she had just learned to pronounce. “Ms. Obreque?” she said. “Teacher Rose Jean Obreque?”
She saw a woman smiling and moving toward her with a large suitcase.
“Are you our new teacher?” Stewart asked, but the woman shook her head and walked by.
Stewart raised the sign above her head and took out her phone to check in with her office 100 miles south in Bullhead City, Ariz. The 2,300 students in her district had been back in school for several weeks, but she was still missing almost 30 percent of her classroom staff. Each day involved a high-wire act of emergency substitutes and reconfigured classrooms as the fallout continued to arrive in her email. Another teacher had just written to give her two-week notice, citing “chronic exhaustion.” A new statewide report had found that elementary and junior high test scores in math had dropped by as much as 11 percentage points since the beginning of the pandemic. The principal of her junior high had sent a message with the subject line “venting.”
“The first two weeks have been the hardest thing I’ve ever faced,” he wrote. “My teachers are burnt out already. They come to me for answers and I really have none. We are, as my dad used to say, four flat tires from bankruptcy, except in this case we are one teacher away from not being able to operate the school.”
Stewart had been working in some of the country’s most challenging public schools for 52 years, but only in recent months had she begun to worry that the entire system of American education was at risk of failing. The United States had lost 370,000 teachers since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Maine had started recruiting summer camp counselors into classrooms, Florida was relying on military veterans with no prior teaching experience, and Arizona had dropped its college-degree requirement, but Stewart was still struggling to find people willing to teach in a high-poverty district for a starting salary of $38,500 a year.
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