By Katy Savage
Some districts are still scrambling for teachers and staff members as schools open this week.
There were 1,200 open positions in the Vermont public school system about two weeks before the start of school, according to the Vermont National Education Association.
Don Tinney, the president of the Vermont National Education Association, said there is especially a need for paraeducators, custodians and support staff.
“It is an issue in every district,” Tinney said, explaining pre-pandemic struggles to find teachers were exacerbated by the lockdowns. “It is cause for serious concern.”
Some educators are doing double duty this year to cover positions that aren’t filled.
“It’s part of the larger employment problem we’re seeing across all sectors,” Tinney said.
Locally, Killington Elementary School students will be asked to bring their own lunch the first week or two of school because the district has been unsuccessful at hiring a temporary cook. Windsor Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Sherry Sousa said she also has yet to fill a custodian position at Killington Elementary.
“Because we have such low unemployment in this region, we’ve really had a hard time filling that position,” Sousa said.
With reports of a national teaching shortage, Sousa said she started looking for teachers and staff back in February and continued hiring through the summer.
“We were very aggressive at filling positions,” she said. “We knew this would come to pass. I remember 10 years ago we’d have at least 30 applicants for a position. [Now] we’re happy if we have three to five candidates.”
The housing shortage, which is especially impacting rural areas, has also made filling teaching positions difficult.
“Last year we lost some really good candidates because they couldn’t find housing,” Sousa said.
This year, Sousa said the school district worked with the Woodstock Economic Development Commission to connect landlords with teachers. Some landlords have prioritized renting to teachers, she said.
“That’s been a community effort to make sure that happens,” she said.
Sousa, like other district leaders, has also gotten creative with staffing. A long-term substitute in the high school, for example, was hired as an elementary school teacher.
This year, the Legislature passed Act 173, which allows retired educators to return to teaching for up to three years without affecting their pension benefits.
The Agency of Education is also granting emergency provisional licenses, allowing teachers who aren’t yet licensed the ability to teach for up to two years. Having less-qualified teachers, however, affects the quality of instruction in the district.
“You have to bridge that content knowledge,” Rutland City Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Rob Bliss said.
Bliss said some recent college graduates without licenses were hired in Rutland city this year. One retired teacher also returned to the classroom. Bliss was still looking to fill six to seven paraeducator roles and one or two teachers at Stafford Technical Center days before school opened. However, Bliss said he was better off than some districts after he spoke with his colleagues.
“We were fully staffed and a lot of colleagues were short staffed,” he said.
Rutland Northeast Supervisory Kristin Hubert said she has more teachers under provisional licenses this year than ever before.
Hubert said the district also has yet to fill two or three bus driver positions, a handful of paraeducator positions, custodian roles, as well as a music teacher position two days before school started. Hubert said the district was still actively recruiting and hiring and was hopeful to fill those positions soon.
Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union Superintendent Christine Bourne said the district is down six support staff members, including two special education teachers, a health teacher, a French teacher, two mental health clinicians and a fourth grade teacher.
Bourne is combining fourth grade classrooms and splitting students into two rooms instead of three, as was done previously.
“Our staff has been incredibly helpful and flexible and have worked with us on how to meet the needs,” she said.
Bourne has another six-to-eight teachers working under provisional licenses.
“It’s still a problem,” she said.
Slate Valley Unified School District Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said 20% of her teaching staff is working under provisional licenses this year.
“The number is much higher for sure,” she said. “Even though we’ve been able to hire, it’s been really, really hard to find teachers. We’ve hired teachers who went to college to be high school teachers and we’ve hired them as elementary school teachers.”
She was still looking to hire nine instructional assistants and a school counselor less than a week before school started. Olsen-Farrell said some candidates who were hired in the spring declined the job offer because they couldn’t find housing.
“It has definitely been challenging the last three years through Covid,” she said, explaining the paraeducator positions have been the most difficult to fill. “Because of all of the quarantine requirements, folks with young children were having to quarantine often and it was leading to a lot of missed time at work. Folks were choosing to stay home instead.”
Tinney said part of the problem is that paraeducators don’t make a livable wage.
“In terms of both teachers and support professionals, we have to make sure that they feel respected,” he said.
Another issue is testing requirements to be a licensed teacher. Teachers are required to pass the Praxis Core tests, which assesses a potential teacher’s reading, writing and mathematics abilities. Tinney said the tests may be deterring some eligible teachers. The most impacted by testing requirement and salaries are rural districts.
“We see more provisional licenses in rural districts where they have lower salaries,” he said. “We have to continue to improve the compensation and working conditions for our rural districts.”