(WFRV) – Most school districts will be back in session in just a couple of weeks in northeast Wisconsin. And most school districts are facing serious teacher shortages.

“I’m in my 31st year in education,” Two Rivers Public School District superintendent Diane Johnson said. “If you would have told me 15 years ago that we were going to have teacher shortages, I would not have believed you.”

In the last 15 years, the teacher turnover rate across the state of Wisconsin was 11.8%, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum. It jumped to 15.8% for the 2022-23 school year.

“That’s the rate of teachers who are in the classroom one year and then the next are working in a different district or have left the classroom entirely,” Wisconsin Policy Forum senior researcher Sara Shaw said.

Dan Tjernagel, superintendent of Sturgeon Bay Schools, thinks that the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated an issue that was only growing.

“This has been coming for a period of time with baby boomers leaving the workforce,” he said. “Obviously some things during COVID accelerated (the number of employees) that were leaving the workforce and it made some of these (vacancies) across the workforce, regardless of employment area, more challenging more quickly than anticipated.”

Tjernagel does not feel that he is experiencing the effects of a teacher shortage yet, but he does believe that the number and quality of candidates has declined.

“We might not have a teacher shortage issue, but we definitely have a shortage of candidates,” he said. “As candidate pools are getting shallower, the challenge of finding the right candidate is more difficult than it used to be.”

Johnson says that she has eight openings to fill in less than two weeks, and is already experiencing a teacher shortage in Two Rivers.

“I used to, as a principal, have 200 applications for a first-grade position,” she said. “Now you’re lucky to get an application for a position.”

She attributes that decline to salaries not being able to be raised, coupled with high job expectations for teachers.

“You’re not just a teacher, you also have to act as a nurse, as a psychologist.”

Inflation following the pandemic also brought an increase in the instability of the workforce, according to Dan Rossmiller, the executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

“When inflation crept up to 7-8% a year, that became an issue,” he said. “So with the lack of collective bargaining and agreements that bind teachers to particular districts, they’re much more akin to a free agent in baseball. They can move from district to district and we saw many of them moving.”

Competition among nearby school districts is inevitable, according to Kellie Bohn, district administrator at Seymour School District.

“As neighboring school districts, we try to be pretty careful about supporting everyone’s efforts so you’re taking from one to serve your own, but ultimately we have to be concerned with our own districts and filling the positions we have,” she said. “It’s not always comfortable to do that, but we have to make sure our positions are filled.”

Using the local education community to spread the word of vacancies, as well as being proactive and watching out for retirements to post job applications, is the key to being successful in the search for the right candidate, according to Bohn.

“We try to post early, we try to use our local networks of teachers talking to other teachers, we try to partner with our local education institutions and our student teachers to try to have our student teachers come and work for us,” she said.

Bohn stresses that retention is just as important as recruitment.

“As a profession, we just have to look more creatively at the ways we support and train new teachers coming into the field,” she said. “We’ve revamped our new teacher mentoring program to provide a new level of support for folks who are new in the district or in the field.”

Seymour is not the only district with a peer mentoring program for its teachers; it is also what brought Judy Holappa to Oshkosh Area School District’s third job fair of the summer Wednesday morning, as she sought a part-time peer mentoring role after working full-time as a teacher for 32 years.

“There are teacher shortages everywhere and they’re having a difficult time filling many roles in every school district,” she said. “Being a job fair I think it’s a little bit more relaxed, and so I think it’s a good way to get people in and make them feel comfortable.”

As of Wednesday morning, there were 65 openings in Oshkosh, many of them for teacher and aide positions.

“We see the shortage as an opportunity to invite professionals to think about the career of being a teacher,“ Oshkosh Area School District’s assistant superintendent of instruction Sam Coleman said.

 “I think that with the vacancies that we have to fill, that certainly creates an experience and challenge that we need to address,” he said. “But we are certainly prepared to welcome all of our students back and when they come back they’ll be ready to have high-quality teaching and learning opportunities.”

Whether it is with a full roster or not, Wautoma Area School District is prepared for the school year regardless of any more candidates it receives.

“We’ve had to get more creative than we have historically, mainly because of applicant licensure,” district administrator Jewel Mucklin said.

She said that administrative staff and interns will have to cover for positions, and is also looking to create “split-type positions” in which staff can perform a variety of roles. She said that her district is working closely with the Department of Public Instruction to ensure that all protocols are followed, and has come up with a master plan to create long-term solutions.

She also said one challenge that is not going to be solved is location because a lot of candidates would rather be working in the Fox Valley than 60 miles to the west in Wautoma. Still, there are 1,300 students there that need to be taught.

“We still have a couple weeks until school starts so this is the time when you start getting nervous about it because this is the time when those positions get harder and harder to fill,” Bohn said, with a pile of laptops neatly stacked on tables next to her.

The high school students will pick them up tomorrow. One of their teachers will still be unknown, just one of the hundreds of vacancies in northeast Wisconsin.