SPRINGFIELD — The state’s teacher shortage, which is continuing to get worse, is hitting central and southern Illinois schools especially hard, according to a study by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools.

In central Illinois, 89 percent of districts surveyed have problems finding qualified candidates to fill their teaching positions. Southern Illinois fared worse than all other areas, with 92 percent having issues with staffing their positions.

Mark Jontry, president of the association that did the study, said reasons for this shortage include the fact that pay for beginning teachers is not high, the way teachers are currently evaluated is pushing people out of the industry, and fewer students are passing the tests they need to get their teaching license.

The association heard from more than 500 school districts statewide about their issues with the teacher shortage.

Overall, 85 percent of districts identified a major or minor problem with teacher shortages in their schools. Superintendents said 20 percent of positions that were open in 2018 remain unfilled or are filled by an unqualified professional. Because of the shortages, 225 classes are being canceled overall.

“All those factors combined, as well as a general negative narrative, have contributed to this shortage,” Jontry said. “This isn’t something that’s happened overnight.”

In Sangamon County, 30 positions, including teachers, school support personnel and other licensed staff, have remained unfilled because of the teacher shortage. In Peoria, that number is 60. Winnebago County has 173 unfilled positions in total, according to information from the Illinois State Board of Education’s website.

Teacher shortages have been worst when it comes to school psychologists, library/media specialists, foreign language teachers and instructors for blind or deaf students.

Districts surveyed reported canceling classes or programs because they don’t have enough qualified applicants, or converting classes to online instruction.

“None (of these options) are really good for kids,” Jontry said.

Jeff Vose, regional superintendent for Sangamon and Menard counties, said young educators are more attracted to Chicago and surrounding areas for certain quality-of-life aspects. The salaries also tend to be higher in the suburbs.

“Trying to attract young educators to smaller, rural communities seems to be one of the most challenging things in the state,” Vose said.

Beth Crider, regional superintendent of Peoria County, said there were multiple positions where only a few people — or none at all — have applied.

“My districts are used to having people to choose from,” she said. “They’re used to being able to select from a variety. Now (they) have to take whoever applied.”

Like other regions, Peoria County districts are having to use substitutes in place of permanent teachers. The substitute shortage has made teachers nervous about calling in sick, Crider said.

“What we actually have is not a teacher shortage, as much as a teacher keepage (problem),” Crider said. “A lot of teachers go in; more than half are out in five years.”

The job itself is hard, Crider said, but also involves a lot of paperwork and regulations.

Funding for things like mentorship programs would help a lot with this, she said.

To combat these issues, Peoria Public Schools has conducted virtual job fairs and gone to universities to recruit.

But when it comes to ending the teacher shortage, it is going to have to take a statewide effort, Crider said.

“It’s going to take all of us, not just Peoria County,” she said. “The ultimate battle is this: How do you reduce barriers for people to become teachers but not reduce the quality of teacher candidates in the classroom?”

Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, is sponsoring a bill that would raise the minimum wage for teachers to $40,000 by the 2023-2024 school year. An increase would start in the 2020-2021 school year at $32,076.

Manar said the bill, which received bipartisan support in the House and Senate before being vetoed by former Gov. Bruce Rauner last year, will have a positive impact on reversing the teacher shortage.

“We have a severe shortage of teachers in downstate Illinois,” he said. “That problem’s not going to change by wishing it away.”

Other solutions include providing incentives for teachers to go to underfunded, high-need districts through loan forgiveness programs and by making it cheaper for educators to get a teaching license, Manar said.

Illinois enacted a new school funding formula designed to ensure that most state assistance was directed to school districts most in need in 2017.

Another law, which was signed last year, made it easier for out-of-state teachers to become licensed in Illinois if they have a comparable license or completed a comparable state-approved education program.

This was a step in the right direction, Manar said, but there is more that needs to be done.

Raising the minimum teacher salary to $40,000 would be a great idea in theory, Vose said, but his main concern is how to pay for that.

Vose wants to see regional offices of education, universities and school districts working together to determine what areas they’re going to see shortages in, and working to target young people in those areas.

“We have to identify the shortages so we’re prepared,” Vose said.