Poplar schools lose about a fifth of their teachers each year — more than double the national attrition rate — and principals have struggled to fill vacancies across most grade levels and subjects. For about 1 in 10  positions there, the district last year reported hiring people with no formal training who needed an emergency waiver from the state to teach. The problem is the same across Montana — where 65 percent of rural schools in remote settings reported difficulty filling vacancies, compared with 35 percent of non-rural schools. This school year, with the pandemic making it even harder to import teachers from elsewhere, education leaders in the state issued the highest number of emergency waivers — 122 — for unlicensed teachers to work in classrooms since at least 2005.

Long before the coronavirus made the situation bad enough to break a record, rural — and especially tribal — schools had trouble finding and keeping qualified teachers. Principals in small towns across the West regularly import teachers from afar, even from abroad. They hire unlicensed teachers and stop offering specific courses. Elementary, fine arts and special education teachers are especially hard to find, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of state education data.

And though the communities hit hardest by the teacher shortage are small, the problem is large. Across the U.S., about 9.3 million public-school students — or nearly 1 in 5 of all students in the country — attend a rural school, according to a November 2019 report from the Rural School and Community Trust. At just below 75 percent, Montana has the highest share of rural schools of any state.

For many reasons, including low pay, isolation, and scarcity of housing, hanging on to local talent is an especially acute problem in Montana. The state actually produces roughly six times as many teachers — 1,600 a year — as the labor market can absorb, according to data from the Montana Department of Labor & Industry. Still, Montana principals reported hiring nearly 400 people without full credentials over the past three years to lead classrooms, according to a Hechinger Report analysis of data from the state’s Office of Public Instruction.

Read the full article about rural schools by Neal Morton at The Hechinger Report.