Missy Dirks, the president of the Frederick County Teacher Association, has seen her peers stressed, overworked and disheartened. The increasing workloads and the sudden switch to virtual education during the pandemic have made an already difficult job even harder for many talented professionals, particularly for special education workers. 

“[It’s] a lot of work for one human to do,” Dirks said. “I have also seen a number of teachers not leave teaching, but leave special education because of that kind of double job that they’re doing. The workload is not sustainable.”

The pandemic increased the need for special education teachers, but the number available didn’t grow. More students are requiring special education services because of delayed social and academic development after almost two years of virtual learning.

“In terms of the types of paperwork and tracking and reporting, these shortages existed prior to the pandemic. But I think the pandemic sort of exacerbated an already challenging situation,” said Jacqueline Nowicki, a director at the U.S. Department of Education’s Government Accountability Office.

Many special education teachers, Dirks said, are overworked within the system they had once loved. In almost all states, including Maryland, there are not enough special education teachers to meet the needs of students in the classroom, leaving the state’s most vulnerable children without basic educational rights that the law dictates.

In Maryland, special education has seen more critical shortages than previous years, based on statistics from the National Conference of State Legislatures. While more students are seeking special education support, fewer teachers are there to provide the aid. 

This is a statewide issue that covers all grade levels. Over the past five years, there has been a greater number of vacancies in most Maryland districts compared to prior school years. The crisis is exacerbated by low salaries even though Frederick County is the seventh wealthiest county in the state. Dirks said this creates a “vicious cycle.”

“For a decade, we have been either the second worst or worst-funded school system depending on the year,” said Dirks. “It’s kind of a tiger chasing his tail because as the shortage is ramped up, that means our caseload numbers are higher than the people we have, which makes more people want to leave special education.”

The official data from the Frederick County School board meeting on January 11 gives a misleading impression that there are no shortages. The presentation suggests that there is a 97 percent filled rate. In fact, the data tells a different story because of who is employed in the special education positions.

The severity of the shortages varies significantly by location, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. In elementary schools in Frederick County, eight positions remain unfilled, but three positions that are filled are by contractors. The contractors are not certified teachers, and are less prepared to meet the needs of the students and other teachers, according to Dirks.

“We are told that they are certificated educators and that they should have the minimum skills, but when somebody’s not invested in the school community, when they’re not going to necessarily be here tomorrow or next week or a year from now, that’s a very different culture in the classrooms than somebody who is invested and is here to stay,” Dirks said. 

The numbers are worse for vacancies for teachers certified to support students with disabilities that impact their speech and language. While it appears that all positions are filled, there are a total of nine contractors filling positions throughout all grade levels and programming.

Students with disabilities are entitled to special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Individualized Education Programs are based on student needs and can vary. One student may need extra time on tests. Another’s program may require one-on-one classroom support. The additional resources are individualized in hopes of addressing developmental shortfalls.

This is a larger issue when there are not enough special education teachers, a situation that has worsened since the pandemic, according to DATA and John Eisenberg, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education and a former special education teacher himself. 

“The immediate move from being face to face to online threw a lot of people into disarray, [with] the teaching workforce having not been trained or prepared for how to do what they do in a virtual environment,” he said.

Eisenberg added that divisive politics has made the landscape for teachers even more dire. Teacher tip lines are being used to turn teachers in if they are suspected to be teaching divisive topics, or being threatened with losing their teaching license.

“[Teachers are] scared of what to teach and how to teach it,” Eisenberg said “I think the pressures are way higher than I have ever seen.”

Eisenberg said that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, an average of 12 to 13 percent of students accessed special education resources across the country. Now, more children are evaluated for consideration. The exact percentage is not yet known.

Data from the Government Accountability Office in October of 2022 showed that the number of individuals obtaining special education degrees has slightly decreased, while the need has risen substantially.

Numerous special educators have said that the state requires teachers to fill out this endless paperwork. In addition to full-time job planning and designing instruction, their workload is much more complicated than general education teachers, as they often must coordinate with occupational therapy and physical therapy teachers, speech language providers and pathologists for their services.

The Maryland Department of Education is trying to combat the state-wide teacher shortages through local recruitment initiatives, including a Teach Maryland website to explain requirements for teaching in the state. The Department developed a new streamlined licensure system. The Teach in Maryland Conference has also aimed to recruit the top quarter of high school students into the teaching profession.

For Michelle Hill, a special education teacher at Middletown High School, the added burdens are not steering her away from her passion to teach.

Hill, who has been teaching for 17 years, wants to return to the traditional model of teaching while infusing social-emotional learning to allow students to make better gains in the classroom following years of virtual instruction.

“I got into the field because I wanted to work with kids my whole life,” Hill said. “I originally was going to teach elementary and then I saw the kind of impact that you can make as a special ed teacher.”