Schools are preparing for large-scale teacher layoffs. This is why

Schools across the country are announcing teacher and staff layoffs as districts brace for the end of a pandemic relief package that provided the largest one-time federal investment in K-12 education.

The money must be used by the end of September, leaving a sharp funding gap as schools also struggle with widespread enrollment declines and inflation.

Many districts have warned of layoffs as the current school year comes to an end and next year’s budgets are planned. The local headlines about teachers are unlikely to help Americans who remain stubbornly pessimistic about the economy feel better, compounding the challenge President Joe Biden faces in showing voters how things are better than they were four years ago to make.

In Missoula, Montana, for example, the public school district is considering eliminating 33 teaching positions and 13 administrative positions, including the director of special education and the director of fine arts, as it faces a budget shortfall.

“The last time MCPS (Missoula County Public Schools) saw these types of cuts was almost a generation ago,” Superintendent Micah Hill said during a school board meeting earlier this year.

Not only is federal funding ending, but enrollment at the district’s schools has dropped by nearly 500 students — or roughly 5% — since 2019. At the same time, the district is facing rising insurance and energy costs, Hill said in a statement. to CNN.

In Arlington, Texas, the public school district will eliminate 275 positions funded by federal pandemic relief funds at the end of this school year. They include staff who have helped provide after-school care, tutoring and mental health services. The district, which has a total of about 8,500 employees, has said employees affected by the layoffs can apply for other available positions.

And in Hartford, Connecticut, 30 teachers and 79 other staff members have been notified that they have lost their jobs. In total, around 384 positions will be cut, although some of these were already vacant and others will not be filled after a staff member retires or leaves.

Enrollment in Hartford Public Schools has fallen 21% since 2010 due to a decline in the school-age population and a policy that allows Hartford residents to enroll in schools in neighboring districts.

“That is a long-term problem that has been exacerbated by the ESSER cliff,” Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said in a statement to CNN. ESSER, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, refers to the grant program that provided federal pandemic-related relief funds.

Pandemic relief is coming to an end

After the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Congress approved three rounds of federal funding to help K-12 schools respond.

Between March 2020 and March 2021, lawmakers approved $190 billion in funding for K-12 schools — about six times what they receive from the federal government in a normal year.

Initially, many districts used the money to reopen school buildings by purchasing masks and cleaning supplies and upgrading HVAC systems. The latest and largest round of funding, approved in 2021, required districts to spend at least 20% of the money addressing learning loss — which could have included tutoring programs, summer school or longer school days.

Districts were given more than three years to spend the third round of money, with few other restrictions. It was largely up to local school boards to decide how to spend the money on a wide range of pandemic-related needs, and they could choose to hire new teachers and staff even though they knew the funding would eventually dry up.

Although districts are required to report how they spend the money, the reports often lack details, making it difficult to track how many teachers have been hired with the federal funding.

But a new report from CALDER, an education research center, that looked at Washington state found that federal funding created about 12,000 positions, including more than 5,000 classroom teachers.

“These are people who wouldn’t have been hired if that extra funding didn’t exist,” said Dan Goldhaber, one of the report’s authors.

Districts that have created new positions must now decide how – and whether – to fund them in the future.

How many teachers are at risk?

It may seem counterintuitive to worry about teacher layoffs when many districts are struggling to fill open positions – especially in math, science and special education subjects and in rural areas.

But that’s partly because some districts, funded by the pandemic, have added positions as public school enrollment has declined nationally.

It’s difficult to know how many teaching jobs are at risk across the country. But if staffing levels were to return to pre-pandemic levels in 2018-2019, districts would have to lay off 384,000 full-time employees, according to education analyst Chad Aldeman.

Who could be hit the hardest?

The federal pandemic relief law directs states to disburse the money as they do with Title I funding, meaning more money goes to districts with more low-income families — which could be the ones now dealing with the face the largest budget deficits.

“Students of color and students who attend districts with higher poverty levels will be the ones to bear the brunt of the layoffs,” said Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

And when districts lay off staff, many also lay off the most recent hires. Peske said it’s better if districts approach layoffs with teacher performance in mind.

“We know that if they use seniority as the only criterion, they can fire teachers who are very effective — and this will put students at a great disadvantage,” Peske said.

She also recommends protecting high-demand staff members, such as math and special education teachers.

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