Thousands of kids will soon be heading back to school with their backpacks and school supplies — but some school districts are still scrambling to find teachers for some classes.

Teacher preparation consultant, Larry Bice, with the Iowa Department of Education says it is hard to nail down the exact number of teachers still needed. He does know there are key areas that have shortages. “For instance, physics, family and consumer science, agriculture education, those things like that, we have a good handle on how many job postings there are and how many people there are finishing programs. And so we can determine a relative shortage — a numerical shortage — for those content fields,” Bice says.

He says many of the districts still looking for teachers are smaller. “We’ve got a lot of communities that have 300, 400 people who live in those communities and it is really hard to get a teach, especially a new teacher, to move to those communities. That one though, we just don’t have a good handle on the data yet,” Bice says.

Bice says they know based on a federal measuring stick that the special education teaching jobs have been hard to fill for many years. “If we break it down into certain areas, things like teachers of visually impaired students, teachers of hearing impaired students are always at the top, we don’t even make them in Iowa,” Bice says. “But then the other special education licenses that we have — we always have a shortage of those.”

Bice says the job postings give some idea of how many openings there are, but he says you can’t get an exact count from them. He says that’s not the best way to track, because if a teacher retires at one school and then someone leaves to take that spot, that school has to advertise for a new teacher, and if a teacher leaves a third school to fill the spot at the second, then it can look like there are more job postings than there are positions.

Also adding to the shortage is a drop in new teachers entering the market. “I can tell you that the number of teachers that we produce in the state of Iowa has dropped over the last ten years — specifically over the last four or five years,” Bice says. “But that’s also a national trend. We just don’t produce as many teachers as we used to.” What happens if classes are ready to start and they don’t have enough teachers?

“They either don’t offer the course — which is horrible — or there are options. And one option that we have in Iowa is Iowa Learning Online, which is run through the Department of Ed, but they don’t teach it. You can take certain courses online,” Bice says. For some of the larger districts, teachers move around to different classrooms.

“Special education teachers, music teachers, often will teach in two or even three different buildings on different days,” he says. “So there are lots of ways that principals and superintendents are trying to meet the needs of their students within this shortage of teachers.” In some of the worst cases, schools get special licenses for teachers to fill a subject need.

“Let’s say a person is teaching math and has been working on getting a physics endorsement but has only 75 percent of the course work finished. That person can get an emergency license to teach physics,” Bice says. “It’s a conditional license and the condition is that the person has a year or two years to finish that course work and keep that license.”

Bice says Iowa is above the national average in retaining approximately 70% of its teachers in a five-year period. The national average is around 50%.