Gary Rolston poses for a portrait at Suttons Bay High School in Suttons Bay on Friday. Rolston is a substitute teacher.

SUTTONS BAY — Suttons Bay Superintendent Casey Petz does not think people understand how dire a situation educators and school administrators face when it comes to open jobs at schools.

“People are really taxed right now. It doesn’t take much to tip us over the edge,” Petz said. “When you’re struggling to find subs and drivers and food service workers and have high quality trained teachers, it’s just operating too close to the edge.”

The pressure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic drove many people away from jobs in education, but the shortage of people willing to work in education and applying for teaching positions has been on educators’ radars for years. Petz said he noticed a “mass exodus” of people from education in the past few years.

Petz said Suttons Bay is “struggling with it like everybody else”.

“As an example: if you post a math or science position, you’re lucky to get one or two applicants, and that’s not typical,” Petz said.

Kalkaska Public Schools Superintendent Rick Heitmeyer said more than 20 years ago, each position in education would have 60 to 100 applicants. In the past year, he has not seen more than five people apply to job postings with Kalkaska Public Schools.

“It’s tough to find anybody,” Heitmeyer said. “I guess you hope the right person reads your job posting at the right time and applies.”

Julie Brown, Elk Rapids superintendent, said her school district faced some roadblocks in hiring substitutes and paraprofessionals, but they “had leaner years than this year.”

“You hear school districts that have 10, 20 open teaching positions and that’s scary,” Brown said. “So, we’re in good shape compared to that.”

The shortage of applicants for positions in education is not just a headache for administrators; it can be a threat to day-to-day learning. Some schools in Michigan have had to cancel class this year because they were unable to put enough teachers in front of students.

Newaygo Public Schools canceled classes between Nov. 9 and Nov. 15, citing staffing shortages across the district. The district had too many staff out because of COVID-19, seasonal illness and personal reasons.

Some educators fear the lack of people working toward or applying for positions in education now could leave longer lasting impacts as well; Heitmeyer said current staffing shortages could complicate the future of leadership in certain school districts.

“If we don’t have the teachers, are we going to have the administrators?” Heitmeyer asked.

The long-term impacts could even weigh on the quality of students’ educations.

“If we don’t find ways to attract candidates to the teaching profession, then I think that the writing on the wall is really clear: We’re not going to have certified teachers in our classrooms,” Brown said.

Brown said another plausible outcome to this shortage would be increased class sizes, which can often be more difficult environments for students to learn in.

During a Michigan Board of Education meeting on Nov. 3, state Superintendent Michael Rice said an investment of $300 million to $500 million over the next five years could help address the teacher shortage. Part of that investment includes tuition reimbursement for college students in education programs, student loan forgiveness and scholarships to high schoolers entering teacher training programs.

Until the issue can be properly addressed, Petz said he thinks schools will continue to close for days at a time as a result of staffing shortages.

“I don’t think it’s a problem in Suttons Bay ... but from longstanding societal problem, we can’t continue to operate on this frequency,” Petz said.

While in some ways the shortages can seem bleak, many schools in northern Michigan have been creative in coming up with solutions.

In Suttons Bay, Petz said that to get people “in the door,” they will hire uncertified people and then help them get the certifications they need for their positions. Kalkaska is doing similar things.

“We actually are paying for someone’s master’s degree in special education,” Heitmeyer said.

However, for many educators, the longer-term solutions are rooted in higher wages and an increase in respect for the education profession.

“Teaching wages are going to have to go up,” Heitmeyer said. “The state’s gonna have to help with a mechanism to do that.”

Michele Shane, head of Children’s House Montessori School, said her school has not been struggling with hiring recently, mostly because of how few employees it has. But she has seen how other schools in Michigan are struggling, and she thinks one of the best solutions is increasing teachers’ wages.

“Every educator is underpaid,” Shane said. “And that’s a systemic problem, not a Traverse City problem.”

Teaching is a difficult job, Petz said, and it has been “very hard” to keep people in education, in part because of a years-long “devaluing” of the teaching profession.

“It’s just kind of, in some ways, been this slow erosion of the work that we do,” he said.

For Petz, the solution is not just higher wages, but a slow rebuilding of respect for teachers through greater connections made in communities between teachers and families.

Heitmeyer said he also noticed a shift where “teachers aren’t as valued” as they used to be. He agreed that this should change.

“Teaching is a great profession and it’s an opportunity every day to touch the future,” Heitmeyer said. “You’re working with kids and helping them grow and develop and become the leaders of tomorrow and there’s not many jobs where you can see that you have that opportunity and honor every day.”

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