Staffing, mental health are most pressing issues in Michigan schools, survey finds

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

School staffing shortages and concerns over student mental health have surpassed pay and benefits as the most pressing issues facing Michigan schools, according to a survey of 2,600 public school employees released Monday by the Michigan Education Association.

The survey, done by Emma White Research for the MEA, included 2,587 active K-12 teachers and staff, higher education faculty and staff and student teachers and was conducted online from Jan. 25-28.

MEA President Paula Herbart said the educator shortage is having a daily impact on students and educators.

“This survey proves what we already knew: Michigan’s teachers, support staff and other public school employees are at a breaking point,” said Herbart. "This is adding to already overwhelming pressure caused by meeting students’ academic, social and emotional needs while also dealing with COVID-19, unfair evaluations, standardized testing, the threat of school violence and so much more."

MEA President Paula Herbert discusses Michigan's teacher shortage and its impact on students on Monday, Feb. 15, 2022 during a virtual press conference with the Michigan Education Association.

The MEA has about 120,000 members statewide. Doug Pratt, spokesman for the association, said quantifying the shortage is difficult because the union doesn't receive data directly from the state's 530 local districts when educators retire or leave. 

Michigan has been experiencing a teacher shortage for more than a decade. Retirement data from the state show about 1,800 to 1,900 teachers retired every year from 2016 to 2019. In 2020, retirements were higher for 10 of the 12 months compared with the prior year, with 2,066 teachers retiring, up from 1,791 in 2019.

MEA officials said the number of initial teacher certificates issued in Michigan remains at about 5,000 a year. The state's churn rate is between 5,000 to 10,000 educators a year.

Herbart said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's $18.4 billion education budget has some solutions to the crisis, including a proposed $2,000 bonus for everyone who works in schools this fall and $2,000 more if they return in 2023.

Whitmer's budget recommendation also includes a $1.7 billion investment in educator retention programs and $600 million for educator recruitment programs.

Educator pay and benefits, attacks on teachers and schools and school funding were still among top concerns by those surveyed. 

Educators' job satisfaction dropped 16 percentage points in six months, the survey found, from 61% in August 2021 to 45% for the 2022 survey. The percent of educators who say they want to leave for a different career has grown nine points since August, from 11% to 20%.

A quarter of educators with six to 10 years of experience are planning to leave the profession while 21% of educators with one to five years of experience plan to go.

Forty percent reported an increase in class sizes, with 23% saying schools moved into virtual learning temporarily because of staffing shortages.

Nine out of 10 educators are vaccinated and 74% are boosted, according to the MEA survey, which is similar to proportions found in a recent national poll of members.

At the time of the survey, 63% said they worked in a building that required masking and 74% supported mask rules in schools.

On Friday, several counties announced mask mandates would lift on Feb. 28. All of the state's countywide K-12 school mask mandates will be dropped by the end of February, but school districts maintain the discretion of imposing their own masking requirements.