Education leaders: Staff shortages persist midway through the school year

Students in the Charlotte coding club taught by Christina Asquith at the Charlotte Library.
Photo by Abigail Carroll

Abigail Carroll is a reporter with Community News Service, part of the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

Vermont schools face “critical” staff shortages midway through the academic year, education leaders say, with some suggesting the state hack away at its 1,000 teacher and staff vacancies by providing loan support and reducing red tape in licensing and certification.

Before the school year, a Vermont Superintendents Association study found there were around 1,200 open jobs in K-12 schools. Little progress has been made so far: There are still more than 1,000 open positions for teachers, special educators and support staff, Jay Nichols, the Vermont Principals’ Association executive director, told lawmakers.

Staff shortages were a problem before the Covid-19 pandemic, but the problem has worsened since. 

“Fifty percent of teachers who begin (their careers) leave teaching after five years,” Colin Robinson, political director for Vermont-NEA, the teachers union, told legislators last week. 

Teachers struggle with scarce housing, low pay, pressure to focus on test scores and burnout, Robinson and others told members of the House Committee on Education on Jan. 18. 

Burnout in particular has been on the rise during the pandemic, the education leaders said, as teachers try to deal with the challenges of online classes and increased mental health issues among students and educators.

It’s not just a lack of teachers: Schools are also face a shortage of support staff — special educators, administrative workers, aides and more. 

“School support staff provide a significant backbone to our entire education system,” Robinson said, “from helping students access their learning inside a classroom setting so they can control and regulate their behavior, to obviously getting health and nutrition, to cleaning the schools, to actually getting to school.”

Part of the problem seems to be a lack of applicants. “Where once we had hundreds of teacher applications for elementary teaching positions, now there are times where we’ll have a dozen or so,” Nichols told lawmakers. “And those are usually in our higher-paying districts.”

Couple that with the fact that nearly a third of principals have left their positions this academic year — about a 10% uptick from previous years, Nichols said. And there have been 18 superintendent transitions over the last fiscal year, a dozen of which brought in school leaders new to the profession, according to Chelsea Myers, associate executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

During the committee meeting Wednesday, education leaders suggested several solutions to the shortage, including loweriing the barriers to becoming an educator. They suggested offering a state loan forgiveness program to teachers who stay in Vermont for a certain number of years, along with funding support for teachers to get home loans. 

Another idea: Waiving license expenses for teachers moving from other states and bulking up the pension plan for teachers. Nichols called Vermont’s pension plan for teachers the weakest in the region.

Robinson said more than 1,200 teachers in Vermont are serving on provisional or emergency licenses. That means they are working without full certification and may be teaching outside their subject area. Legislators could find a way to transition those educators to full credentials, he said.

One program doing just that is GrowVT-Ed, a collaboration between the Vermont teachers union, school districts, the state Agency of Education, the Vermont Rural Education Collaborative and Castleton University.

The program aims to help teachers who are on provisional licenses complete the process to full licensure. It also looks to help paraeducators obtain further credentials and to make it easier for college graduates working in other fields to switch to education.

“I think whether it’s GrowVT-Ed or other peer-review support programs that exist in Vermont, there’s a really great opportunity there,” Robinson said.

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Abigail Carroll

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