'Definitely a struggle': Districts chart course through severe staffing shortage
Schools across the country are dealing with a teacher shortage, but here at home they also are struggling to hire substitutes and support staff.
The National Education Association last month released a plan to help districts recruit and retain teachers at a time fewer teaching candidates are graduating from college.
“Ten years ago, 20,000 new teachers were entering the field each year, and last year only 6,000 did so,” Pennsylvania Acting Secretary of Education Eric Hagarty told the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
York Suburban Assistant Superintendent Rebecca Lorfink said some states are hurting more than Pennsylvania because there isn’t a robust candidate pool now. That could be due to many factors, from the retirement system changing a few years ago, to teachers not making as much as others with the same education level, she said.
Many teachers who were looking for employment 15 to 20 years ago took substitute positions to get experience, Lorfink said. But now, when a teacher candidate graduates, they can head straight to the classroom. She said it is easier to get a full-time teaching job because of the shortage and if someone has a certification, they can probably get a full-time job, leaving substitute positions vacant.
“It’s definitely not something that is going away anytime soon,” Lorfink said.
A report released by the National Center for Education Statistics said, based on the public schools surveyed in the School Pulse Panel, more than half of the surveyed public schools started this school year understaffed, according to a Pennsylvania State Education Association release.
Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “nationwide, approximately 360,000 fewer people are working in public education than before the pandemic.”
Plenty of positions opening locally: Central York School District’s website shows 72 openings. Some were posted as recently as Oct. 21, such as one for an assistant swim coach, while others, like the post seeking a cook/cashier, date back to Aug. 30, 2021.
Northern York County School District, with 14 openings listed online, is also looking for a long-term substitute agriculture teacher for the high school.
Dallastown Area School District has 27 openings on its website. Three of those are for secondary school positions, six substitute personnel and 12 paraprofessionals.
Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12, which has 1,160 employees serving Adams, York and Franklin counties, has 40 openings in all professions across the system. Thirty of those are open teacher positions, while the rest are advisers or related services positions.
“At the end of the day, I think everybody is facing staffing shortages,” said Tracy Williams, LIU12's human resources director. She added that there hasn’t necessarily been an increase in vacancies because it’s been similar to years prior.
Julie Romig, LIU12's director of strategic communications, said the intermediate unit is aware of staffing shortages and is looking at areas to recruit more, build relationships with educators in the pipeline and increase advertising efforts.
She said she has heard more support staff is needed across the board, and this isn’t new for the area.
York Suburban doesn't have any teaching positions available, but there are three open support staff positions.
“We are actually in very good shape compared to districts in the area,” Lorfink said.
Being proactive: She said the district stays proactive, such as having a job fair this past August to fill support positions and maintaining good relationships with colleges.
She added it helps that the district has a good reputation and there isn’t a lot of staff turnover.
This could be a different story five to 10 years down the line because many teachers spent their entire teaching career there and are coming up to retirement age. The district is starting to have a conversation about that now.
There is also a shortage of substitutes, and the district uses a contractor to fill that need.
“It is definitely a struggle to find day-to-day or long-term,” Lorfink said.
Principals have backup plans, such as asking teachers to give up planning periods or pulling them off cafeteria duty. Administration staff can also cover. There are downsides to shuffling staff around, but the students’ educational needs are the district’s priority, Lorfink said.
“It feels like this has been going on forever, but it’s getting harder and harder every year,” she said of the substitute shortage.
Lorfink noted the shortage started before COVID. One of the district's solutions is restarting its guest teacher program, where community members can come in for a day and teach about something they have a degree in. Sometimes those guest teachers will learn they like teaching and pursue that career or will become a substitute, building their pool.
The National Education Association’s analysis shows it will be a decade before public education returns to pre-pandemic employment levels. It doesn’t help that an association survey shows more than 50% of current educators are considering leaving earlier than they planned.
Steps needed: Based on its research, the association recommends tactics such as providing more mental health resources for staff, letting the teachers provide more input in the curriculum and increasing education funding.
Hagarty, Pennsylvania's acting secretary of education, also said the state is working on a plan with more than 100 action items that will be implemented over the next three years and should reverse the shortage.
He said the department is focused on building the workforce, with an emphasis on hiring minority teachers.
“In Pennsylvania, less than 7% of our teachers are people of color, which of course is nowhere near reflective of the student population we are here to serve,” Hagarty said.
Studies show students do better when they have teachers who look like them or have experienced similar events, he added.
The state is also working to retain the current teachers and provide them with more support, because it can't afford to lose the core group of teachers.
"Society needs to think about how to provide quality education down the road,” Lorfink said.
— Reach Meredith Willse at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.