A statewide survey of Connecticut’s public schools by CT Examiner suggests numerous unfilled positions in city and suburban schools, rich and poor.
Newington Public Schools are short 30 paraeducators. Newtown needs 17. Waterford has 15 openings. And Madison, 10. Clinton, East Lyme, Preston, Westbrook — all say that they are still looking for paraprofessionals – classroom assistants and staff trained to work one-on-one with students needing extra help – for a school year that will start in about two weeks.
Missy Cole, a paraeducator in the Danbury Public Schools, said that not having enough paraeducators places stress on both students and teachers. Cole said she didn’t know how Danbury would address what she said was a shortage of 80-plus paraeducators and tutors — she said the school system was “already stretched thin.”
Vivian Santos, director of communications for Danbury Public Schools, said the district couldn’t confirm how many paraprofessionals they needed, since it depended on student need. She said the district was currently trying to fill about a dozen teacher positions and they “continue to onboard new employees daily.”
According to Cole, who has worked at Danbury High School for 28 years, the lack of paraeducators reflects their low salaries and the growing cost of paying into their healthcare plans — which Cole said still left workers to pay out of pocket.. After 28 years of work, Cole said she makes $18.73 an hour.
“I don’t know how they can cover this,” she said about the shortage. “You can’t keep taking water from a stone.”
And not just paraprofessionals.
Middletown Public Schools needs 14 interventionists — people who work with students on math, literacy and social-emotional learning — and 16 building substitutes. Other districts are looking for literacy tutors and long-term substitutes. And that doesn’t take into account the ongoing search for custodians, cafeteria workers, nurses and administrative assistants across the state.
“I think all of us in education know that every position is important to the function and environment of a school,” Geen Thazhampallath, Human Resources Manager for Middletown Public Schools, told CT Examiner in a statement.
While many districts, especially smaller ones, are struggling to fill what are called “non-certified” positions — building substitutes, tutors and paraprofessionals — larger districts are also in need of classroom teachers. Math and Science teachers appear in short supply, as well as World Language teachers. Bloomfield needs art teachers. Spanish teachers are in widespread demand.
New Britain, which has 120 open positions out of a total of 2,000 staff, needs 10 elementary school teachers and 10 middle school teachers. New London has 46 open positions and needs ESL tutors.
Greenwich has 57 open positions, and Watertown has 50. Kerry Markey, the communications director for the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System, said the 20 schools have “numerous” open positions in everything from trade teachers to academic teachers to cafeteria workers.
More specialized positions that have also gone unfilled: a high school Chinese language teacher, a media arts teacher, an American Sign Language teacher, a tutor for the visually impared. And coaches for school sports teams are also in short supply — Region 5 has nine positions open, including five for fall sports.
Harford has a 14 percent vacancy rate, including a need for 90 additional classroom teachers, many in the elementary schools, according to Assistant Director of Communications & Marketing Julia Skrobak. Skorbak said the district will be using building substitutes to cover the vacancies.
Tiffany Moyer-Washington, an English teacher at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy, said her school was fortunate this year — they only had three positions unfilled, all for elective subjects. But she said she knows what it’s like for teachers who have to scramble to cover a shortage.
“It’s a nightmare,” she said. “You can’t do your job fully because you never have a prep period. You’re always covering for somebody else’s class.”
She also said that fewer teachers meant larger class sizes — where an average class might have been 19 or 20 students pre-pandemic, she said, now they can average between 26 and 28 students per class.
Moyer-Washington said that she felt one of the biggest problems in the Hartford School District was the salary. Neighboring districts, she said, offer salaries that she estimates can be $10,000 to $15,000 higher per year, drawing people away from the inner-city district.
She also said that she felt that the general shortage of teachers had to do with a lack of respect for the profession.
“I’ve been teaching for 19 years and the prestige or the respect that comes with being a teacher has just declined,” she said.
Many of these openings will impact students in greatest need of support. Multiple districts have openings for Spanish teachers and for teachers or tutors who specialize in students who speak a language other than English. Special Education teachers are in short supply, and many paraeducators also work with special education students. Several districts are also missing Speech and Language Therapists.
The lack of support staff could also limit schools’ ability to address some ongoing effects of the educational disruptions during COVID. Districts are short school psychologists, counselors and behavioral interventionists — positions meant to address student mental health. A lack of interventionists and tutors could present a challenge to districts hoping to get children caught up academically after one or two years learning through a screen.
Eric Scoville, spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Education, said that the department is conducting a survey of school districts – the first of its kind in Connecticut – to see the extent of the vacancies in districts across the state.
He said the department would continue the “emergency certifications” that it put in place during the pandemic, that allow teachers at certain grade levels or in certain specialty areas to teach a wider variety of subjects than they would otherwise be allowed to based on their qualifications.
In the meantime, districts are filling the gaps in whatever ways they can.
Jenn Byars, superintendent of Region 5 schools, which include Amity, Orange and Bethany, said that the district has long-term substitutes who will fill in some of the open positions. And some of the district’s retired teachers have said they are willing to step in temporarily.
“Worst case scenario is we do that for the fall and work to recruit potential December college graduates who might be able to join the staff mid-year,” said Byars.
Still, Byars expects that the district will not be able to fill all of the positions for paraeducators, daily substitutes, job coaches and homebound tutors.
“We will likely have vacancies in these areas throughout the entire school year,” she said.
New London Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Ritchie said that the district, which currently has more than 46 openings, was offering hiring bonuses for teachers and recently raised their paraprofessional wages.
In the meantime, she said, central office staff, administrators, and other support staff would “work together to ensure students have highly qualified personnel in front of them.”
“We will utilize an all hands on deck approach to assist with supervision and classroom coverages,” she said.
Ritchie said the district also partners with Kelly Education Services, a company that provides long-term substitute teachers to school districts.
Kristina Martineau, the superintendent of Westbrook, said the district would fill its seven open paraeducator positions with temporary substitutes from agencies.
But substitutes have their own challenges, said Moyer-Washington. Substitutes are often not experts in the subjects they teach. If a full-time teacher is hired three months into the school year for a classroom that was taught by a substitute, she said, they may be scrambling to prepare for tests when the students have barely learned any of the material.
Moyer-Washington said that the district and the state need to take a realistic look at the amount of work that teachers are being expected to take on.
“I think that the expectations and the requirements of teaching have increased over the years,” said Moyer-Washington. “Before, you would just [teach] reading and writing. Well, now you’re teaching reading, writing, and social skills. And now you’re teaching, reading, writing, and social skills and you’re trauma-informed … it keeps adding on our requirements of what we have to do to be successful in the classroom.”
Moyer-Washington said she thought the additional requirements also made it less appealing for teachers to take on extracurricular positions, like coaching sports.
She also said that there needs to be greater trust in teachers to be able to act autonomously and teach in a way that meets students needs.
Cole said she thought the schools should start creating a paraeducator pipeline at the high school level to bring more people into the profession. She said that not having paraeducators put pressure both on students and teachers — especially in contexts like special education and kindergarten.
Cole said that she also feared the loss of paraprofessionals in Danbury to districts that paid more, and what that would mean for the students, who wouldn’t get the full services they need, and for the paraeducators who remain in Danbury and have to shoulder the workload.
Santos said the district will bring in substitutes from Kelly Education Services to help fill in vacancies.
“There’s a big turnover in every school district,” said Cole. “People are getting a better deal, or they’re just going, and then you’ve got to start filling in those voids. It’s not going to be good.”