In the nearly two years since most U.S. schools first shifted to remote learning, teachers developed strategies to account for unexpected changes during the school year.
But the shift to remote learning for one group of eighth-graders had very little to do with coronavirus.
"The eighth-graders at our school went remote, not because the students or the teachers were out for covid, but because there was testing happening in other grade levels and there wasn't the staff to cover," said Christina Medina, a second-grade teacher at Denver's McGlone Academy.
"Eighth-grade teachers had to create asynchronous lessons, follow up with their students, and check their work," Medina said. "They also had to cover the testing so it doesn't get messed up.
That's not the best for the eighth-grade students."
Medina has 14 years of experience in elementary education and a Master's degree in educational equity and cultural diversity. She teaches children about addition, subtraction, and writing basics. This year, she's spent an unusual amount of time focused on a different skill.
"Occasionally you get students who don't know how to tie their shoes," Medina said. "This year, I have six of them."
Any parent would agree that learning to tie your shoes is an essential part of growing up. In normal circumstances, Medina wouldn't mind spending the time to teach the skill.
But these are not normal circumstances.
The omicron variant has created a fresh wave of coronavirus concerns, many of them justified.
Medina is under pressure from school leadership and parents to make up for years of learning loss in her students.
"Second graders this year have never had a normal school year, ever, since starting kindergarten," Medina said. "There are a lot of extra routines that you have to build in that I didn't necessarily have in years prior. That has been exhausting."
Exhaustion is a common theme among teachers surveyed by the National Education Association, one of the largest unions for teachers and other support staff in the U.S.
"We are seeing educators, particularly teachers, who are either taking early retirement or, even more troubling, they're just quitting," said Becky Pringle, the president of the NEA. "They're leaving. They are not going into retirement. They are going into other professions that are less stressful and provide that additional compensation they need."
It is one piece of the Great Resignation.
One hundred eighty-five thousand people left their job in the educational services sector between Sept.-Nov. 2021, the most since at least 2016, according to data published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Pringle said the number could grow this spring.
A study published by the NEA in summer 2021 indicated 32% of teachers are considering a new profession.
"There's been a lot of talk about self-care. And truly, as educators, we do need to take care of ourselves," Pringle said. "But we know that's not gonna take care of all of the issues that are coming to our school house doors. We need others in our society to take care of our educators."
The White House is pushing states and districts to take action using money from the American Rescue Plan, which passed in March 2021 and contained over $122 billion in funding for schools.
Districts in several states have offered signing bonuses in order to attract and retain talent. In some California districts, the bonuses are worth $6,000.
But experts say the teacher shortage, like many other pandemic-era shortages, is directly connected to the supply chain. There aren't enough prospective teachers graduating from college each year to keep up with demand from U.S. school districts.
"The pipeline is getting thinner over time," said Jason Grissom, a professor at Vanderbilt University who studies best practices in school leadership. "People are majoring in education at lower rates than they were two or three decades ago. It's getting harder, in many areas and in specific subjects, for school districts to fill teaching positions."
The decline goes back further. In the 1970-71 school year, education was the most popular major among graduating college seniors, with 176,307 students receiving a degree.
By the 2015-16 school year, the number of graduates was cut in half. 87,217 students received a degree in education that year.
"Research has shown, over and over, that what we want is a high-quality, stable, experienced teacher workforce," said Grissom. "Students need experienced, qualified, effective teachers, and they need teachers to stay in buildings. It's going to be an unfortunate consequence of the pandemic that that's getting disrupted."
"We've got to do some things right now," Pringle said. "We have educators who go to school every day and come home drained because they didn't have time to prepare their lessons for their students because they had to cover another teacher's class. They don't even, oftentimes, have time for lunch. We have to address those issues right now."
The career conversations are already happening among Medina and her peers. She says she plans to stay in the profession, but she knows many other teachers who will not.
"We've seen three or four leave before the end of the year," Medina said. "There's a teacher who was feeling unsafe from children not being able to keep their masks on, the move to the five-day quarantine, and the expectation that we keep up with state standardized tests. She was like, it's not worth my time. Not worth it. The stress I'm putting on myself, my family, it's not worth it."
"That's always on the back burner: 'What else could I do besides teaching?'" Medina continued. "So many teachers would never consider leaving mid-year. But when things get so bad for you, you have no other choice."