Classes are scheduled to start in two weeks in the North Country Supervisory Union, but they won’t be what was originally planned.
School administrators there have had such a hard time finding teachers that officials in many of the supervisory union’s dozen schools are planning to combine some classes and hold some online.
As of early August, the supervisory union was still seeking roughly 30 teachers, as well as about 20 support staffers, such as interventionists and counselors.
“Every principal has had to do some creative problem solving,” said Elaine Collins, the North Country superintendent, in an interview earlier this month. In her roughly 33 years in education, she said, “I've never seen anything like it.”
In the Burlington School District, school officials are also still hiring staff. But by the time the school year starts, the district expects to have nearly every teaching position filled, with the possible exception of those that are “historically hard to fill,” like special educators and world language teachers, said Tom Flanagan, the Burlington superintendent.
“We're actually feeling pretty good about where we are with the teacher vacancies,” Flanagan said in an interview earlier this month.
Vermont’s school staffing shortages are not new. But this hiring season has been especially hard, administrators say, because of a perfect storm of factors: burnout from teaching during the pandemic, a housing shortage, politicization and division at school board meetings, and fears for safety amid a wave of school shootings.
“The number of applicants has dropped precipitously from previous years,” said Peter Burrows, the superintendent of the Addison Central School District and president of the Vermont Superintendents Association. “So you could have posted a position a couple of years ago, an elementary position, and had 45 applicants. And now you might have five or 10.”
But it’s clear that not every school is having the same experience.
There is no comprehensive data about staffing levels at Vermont schools, but administrators and advocates say that staffing shortages are most acute in rural and lower-income areas of Vermont, a longstanding trend that the pandemic has transformed into a crisis.
“Historically, school districts in rural areas, school districts that don't have the levels of compensation that wealthier urban districts have, (have) struggled to retain educators,” said Don Tinney, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, the teachers union. "And it's been exacerbated, I think, by the pandemic.”
‘A harder and harder time’
Statewide, roughly 7% of teachers are teaching on temporary licenses, which allow educators to teach in classrooms while they pursue a permanent certification, according to Patrick Halladay, the director of Education Quality at the Vermont Agency of Education.
That figure has approximately doubled over the past five or six years, Halladay said — a trend that is largely due to teacher shortages.
“School districts are just having a harder and harder time finding people,” Halladay said. “They're not finding licensed individuals, so they're having to get folks who are on a temporary license.”
In the past, “districts with a higher rate of poverty tended to have a higher percentage of teachers on provisional licenses,” said Tinney, the teachers union president. “And that continues to happen.”
In the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, school administrators were still trying to fill 14 full-time classroom teaching positions for the upcoming school year as of last month.
Lynn Cota, the superintendent of Franklin Northeast, said that teacher salaries at her schools lag behind those at more urban and wealthier districts. As the applicant pool has shrunk, that pay gap has squeezed lower-income schools, she said.
“When we had more candidates, districts and (school) systems that paid a little more were able to hire more veteran, more experienced educators,” she said.
The supervisory union is also considering moving some courses online and combining classes, she said.
Meanwhile, in Burlington, Flanagan said that the district is still working to hire non-teaching staff, like paraprofessionals, custodians and food service workers.
“We’re all struggling with vacancies,” Flanagan said. But he admitted that the district’s situation is likely not as bad as some.
“I think, generally speaking, that we don't have major challenges in teacher staffing here in Chittenden County and in Burlington, compared to our neighbors,” he said.
Other districts have had an easier time. In Lamoille South Supervisory Union, which includes the upscale resort town of Stowe as well as the neighboring towns of Elmore and Morristown, there was only one unfilled teacher position as of late July.
“We're actually in pretty good shape right now across the district,” said Ryan Heraty, the Lamoille South superintendent in an interview last month.
Last year, the district provided ski passes to all staff members and offered twice-a-week fitness classes to employees. Officials hope to continue those perks in the upcoming year, and are also considering offering baking classes and bicycle tune-up workshops.
“Is it making our workplace more desirable?” Heraty said. “Is it also helping our teachers and educators feel like they're being taken care of, and helping them stay healthy and fit? Those are all the things that we want to be doing for teachers.”
Why are rural districts struggling?
But money has not solved all districts’ problems. With schools still awash in federal relief funds, some districts and supervisory unions have begun offering sign-on bonuses to teachers — sometimes, to little avail.
“I don't think it has a lot to do with money, to be honest,” said Brooke Olsen-Farrell, the superintendent of the Slate Valley Unified School District.
Slate Valley has one of the highest starting salaries in its region, Olsen-Farrell said, and has been offering $5,000 sign-on bonuses — with little to show for it.
"People were not taking the jobs here because of that bonus, or that salary,” she said. “They were taking them for other reasons, or declining them for other reasons.”
For one thing, although school districts in rural, lower-income areas may have funds to pay teachers and administrators decent salaries, there might be few opportunities for candidates’ spouses or partners.
“If your spouse is going to work in a professional-level job, can they find a job in this region?” said John Castle, who left a position as the North Country Supervisory Union superintendent this summer to become executive director at the nonprofit Vermont Rural Education Collaborative. “Or are they going to work in Montpelier or Burlington or Chittenden County or something?”
For some candidates, “things like skiing and mountain biking and all of that (are) attractive,” said Castle. “But oftentimes people still want the perks of other resources, other opportunities.”
Many educators and school officials told a similar story: Younger, newly licensed teachers spend a few years working in rural parts of Vermont before moving to wealthier, more urban schools.
Teachers “often will come to Chittenden County after a couple of years,” said Halladay, of the Vermont Agency of Education. “Because they get paid a lot more, or they're already living in Burlington or South Burlington and they don't want to drive to St. Albans every single day.”
But now, as the pool of applicants has shrunk, even more urban and wealthier districts are considering hiring teachers with less experience, administrators say.
“I think we're in that place now where everybody's looking at all of the candidates,” said Cota, the Franklin Northeast Superintendent.
State officials have introduced a number of initiatives that they hope will ease staffing shortages in Vermont. Earlier this year, the Vermont legislature passed a bill allowing retired teachers to temporarily reenter the workforce, and the Vermont Agency of Education is allowing early childhood and special education teachers to teach under temporary licenses.
Earlier this month, the Agency released a seven-page document titled “Recommended Steps for Addressing your Staffing Shortages.”
That document outlines the procedures for getting teachers temporary licenses and lists resources and advice for hiring staff. Agency officials recommend that schools “expand advertising for vacant positions to non-education job boards and out of state job boards,” for example, and suggest they “offer hiring incentives and bonuses.”
State and local officials are also collaborating on a teacher training program, GrowVT-Ed, that began its session this summer. The yearlong program aims to help new teachers through the state’s peer review process, which grants them a permanent certification.
That program currently has 65 people enrolled from all around the state, according to Juliette Longchamp, the teachers union’s director of professional programs and a main organizer of GrowVT-Ed.
But Longchamp sees the program as only a short-term solution. In the future, she said, the state needs to “encourage a system that really celebrates teacher leadership, and finds places for really strong educators to support that next generation.”
“This is a Band-Aid,” Longchamp said.
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