Nationwide, public school districts are feeling the effects of a staffing shortage, with the Institute of Education Success reporting that in October, 45 percent of public schools reported having one or more vacant teaching positions.
“We seem to be experiencing a worker shortage in many aspects of the economy,” said Patrice McCarthy, executive director and general counsel of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. “Certainly the pandemic I think has exacerbated that for many people.”
McCarthy said that the staffing shortage has always existed in larger districts throughout the state, but now, it is worse. Smaller, suburban distrcits are also facing these challenges recently, he said. While local districts do have open positions, district leaders said in comparison to other schools they feel as if they are in a good position.
Commissioner Charlene M. Russell-Tucker sent out a memo in April 2022 sharing the teacher shortage areas in Connecticut for the 2022-23 school year, which included school psychologists, special education teachers, bilingual education teachers and more.
Benhaven School, which is based in Wallingford and provides programs for individuals and families who have autism spectrum disorders, pervasive developmental disorders and related impairments, has also faced challenges that come with the overall workforce shortage, especially when it comes to having enough paraprofessional staff, said Karen Helene, principal. She said that not every student at the school has a staff member designated just to them.
“In terms of our employment overall, we have definitely experienced the labor shortage,” Helene said. “For teachers, not as much because of that longevity.”
Despite the difficulty in hiring special education teachers, David Bryant, human resources assistant for Wallingford Public Schools, said that the district has hired a number of teachers who specialize in this area over the course of summer and earlier part of the school year.
“Wallingford has a good reputation as far as a place to work, so I don’t think that has been the issue,” Bryant said. “I think some teachers are moving from district to district as a result to relocate to be closer to home or whatever the reason, but Wallingford is a fairly centrally located community. I think it’s attractive in that regard. A lot of our staff members were students in our district in the past. So people want to come back to the district as well.”
Jeff Solan, superintendent of Cheshire Public Schools, said his district has also been faring well. Solan said the only vacancies are with the paraeducator staff and one opening for a teacher. Steven Madancy, superintendent of Southington Public Schools, also said they only have one full-time vacancy they have been unable to fill in a special educaton role.
State Sen. Jan Hochadel, a former vo-tech school teacher who works professionally as statewide president of the American Federation of Teachers, said teachers have been facing an increase in stress since the pandemic. Hochadel referenced task force reports. According to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), even before the pandemic, close to 300,000 teachers left the profession every year.
“Teachers were faced with so much stress trying to work the best that they could and I don’t think they saw any way out for a long time,” said Hochadel, D-Meriden. “We saw so many teachers leave the profession or retire at the end of 2020, it was astonishing.”
According to an AFT member survey about the 2021-22 school year, 79 percent of teachers said they were dissatisfied with their current working environment.
“It’s the respect, not being treated like professionals, needing higher pay, better wages and improving working conditions and I don’t think a lot of teachers see that happening,” Hochadel said.
Louis Bronk, assistant superintendent for personnel and talent development for Meriden Public Schools, and Madancy said that their districts partner with colleges and universities in the area to bring interns into their schools, which can result in full-time employment for these students after they graduate.
“We want to make sure that we have people in the district that we can consider for those openings,” Bronk said. “Oftentimes when you are putting up a posting and trying to recruit teachers to your district, time is limited and so we don’t want to just base a hire off just an interview if we can avoid it.”
Kerry Markey, director of communications for Connecticut Technical Education and Career Systems (CTECS) schools, said technical schools have faced a shortage of substitute teachers, which can can be difficult when teachers have to be out for medical or personal reasons.
For example, H.C. Wilcox Technical High School in Meriden was closed on Jan. 6, due to illness among the staff members and pre-planned days off.
“With the statewide frequency and intensity of viral illnesses still in full gear in CT, high levels of staff illness at CTECS continues as the predominant factor in school schedule interruptions this year,” Markey said.
Bronk said Meriden Public Schools use assistance programs, such as their Teacher Development Program (TDP).
TDP “allows for growth opportunities that align with district initiatives,” Bronk said. “In return, the district receives a consistent person in our classrooms filling our substitute needs, who is invested in continuing the learning that typically occurs when the teacher is present.”
In Southington, Madancy said a way that the district has retained and hired new teachers is by offering competitive wages and not having a history of laying off employees.
“Our latest contract, with both language and wages, helped us to become more competitive as we were a bit behind surrounding districts in prior years and often lost teachers pursuing higher wages in nearby communities,” Madancy said.
“A history of layoffs is a deterrent for attracting potential candidates, either right out of school, or for a teacher in a shortage area that may consider coming from another district at the risk of losing their seniority,” he said. “Fortunately, layoffs have been minimal over the past few years. If that were to change it could jeopardize future prospects for us.”
Collaboration between teachers and the overall school community can make a difference, Hochadel said.
“When that happens, you find the districts do not have as much frustration that you see other places,” Hochadel said. “You don’t see the max exodus, you don’t see as many hiring problems.”
In Meriden schools, Bronk said that the district’s central office team tries to meet with the teachers’ union as often as possible to discuss what staff members are experiencing and any difficulties they may be facing, “if there are certain things that we can work together on to make things work more smoothly or make somebody’s life a little bit easier.”
Along with communication, Helene said that at Benhaven, administrators create a career path for the staff members, including paraprofessionals.
“We’ve done a really nice job with offering opportunities for promotions, where they earn more money and take on more responsibility, more work with the teachers, more behind the scenes work,” Helene said.
Lauren Mancini-Averitt, president of the Meriden Federation of Teachers, and other union leaders send out a weekly message that shares different teacher’s stories in the Meriden schools. Bronk said the administrators also send weekly highlights.
“That people can read about and get uplifted by, but also learn from,” Bronk said.
Mancini-Averitt and her union leaders have created cards that say, “We Rise By Lifting Others,” which is a quote by Robert Ingersoll. On the back of the card, there is space for staff members to put a message.
“The intent was to give four or five of these cards to every staff member and encourage them to highlight a positive about somebody that they work with on a regular basis to reinforce that positivity, to uplift them,” Bronk said.
Frances Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS), said that the State Department of Education, the legislature, the governor, teachers’ unions and superintendents are working together to combat statewide teacher shortages.
“We have a collaborative base there and many wise people that I think we can come up with some strategies to make this happen and put Connecticut in the forefront in intervention in the staff shortage,” Rabinowitz said.
Hochadel said she has attended legislative breakfasts and meetings that discuss the staffing issues. She said these meetings are beneficial.
“That’s where the magic happens,” Hochadel said.