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Rural Nevada teacher shortages place more strain on students, staff

A dais of school trustees with several rows of seats facing toward them. A woman in a pink shirt is standing in front of the audience and presenting to the school trustees.
Jose Davila IV
KUNR Public Radio
Tonya Spencer (standing, pink shirt) presents to the Elko County School District Board of Trustees on Aug. 23, 2022, in Elko, Nev.

This story is part one of a two-part feature on teacher shortages in Nevada. Listen to part two here.

School districts across Nevada are facing a shortage of teachers. Some have recently resigned or retired, and these losses are especially hard in more rural areas, where it’s already difficult to recruit educators. That’s left some teachers in Elko County stressed and concerned about their students’ well-being.

During a late August Board of Trustees meeting, a group of teachers – including Louri Lesbo – proposed moving to a four-day week for schools in the communities of Elko and Spring Creek.

“I was working oftentimes from 7 [a.m.] to 7 or 8 p.m., five days a week,” Lesbo said about last school year.

Lesbo is a first-grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary School. In addition to her regular classroom duties, she was also a new teacher mentor last year.

“Eight to ten hours just trying to keep up with my additional classroom duties on the weekend,” Lesbo continued. “It was exhausting, and coming into this year, just seeing that it’s worse.”

According to the Nevada State Education Association, there are 82 educator vacancies in Elko County, and NSEA estimates there are more than 2,700 vacancies statewide.

Those vacancies – and routine teacher absences – create chaos for teachers like Lesbo, who are already feeling overwhelmed.

“I can speak for a lot of us at this school. We’re just, we’re scared of what’s to come,” she said.

Schools will often split up kids from the absent teacher’s class among the other teachers in their grade level, disrupting daily lesson plans. They may even pull PE, music, or special education teachers into traditional classrooms to cover absences.

School administrators, like Northside Elementary School principal Krista Chamberlin, are also struggling to find enough day-to-day substitute teachers to fill the gaps.

“So last year was very, very difficult. We struggled with finding substitutes, probably on a daily basis. It was a struggle. I really want to make sure you understand that,” Chamberlin shared. “Even though I am right now looking good as far as our staffing goes, I do foresee the same issues that might come up.”

Chamberlain and other administrators sometimes fill in when no one else is available.

Also asking for changes at the meeting was Tonya Spencer, a first-grade teacher at Grammar #2 Elementary School in Elko.

“When you have a school, a community, really a country. with schools lacking educators, you are not putting students first,” Spencer said.

She says this, in turn, negatively affects student learning as kids fall back into survival mode when they’re removed from their normal routine.

“It’s almost like you don’t care about them,” said Spencer.

Spencer and Lesbo have also seen more anxiety and unacceptable behavior among their students, but student mental health is only half of the equation. Elko Superintendent Clayton Anderson knows that educator mental health is suffering as well.

“When you’re scrambling, it feels like more of an isolated incident, but when you’re constantly scrambling all of the time, that’s not a great state to be in because ‘scrambling’ infers some type of urgency and panic almost,” Anderson explained. “And so, when you’re constantly in that state, it’s just not awesome to be in from a mental health perspective.”

In some ways, the teacher shortage has created the perfect conditions for even more teachers to leave amid growing responsibilities, less time to address them, and little light at the end of the tunnel.

Jose Davila IV is a corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Jose Davila IV is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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