Districts and schools across Connecticut are reporting ongoing teacher shortages that rival or supersede the struggles they faced last year, according to a state Department of Education survey conducted in March.
Department Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said during a news conference on Tuesday that a reciprocity program with 11 other states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico had brought nearly 500 new teachers into 120 districts across the state. She also noted a special education employment system that the state launched, which placed 422 people in Connecticut schools.
But even with those programs, school districts remain short 1,300 teachers and another 1,300 paraeducators.
Many of the districts who answered the survey said that, in addition to the common shortage areas that districts face — science, math, and foreign language teachers, bilingual teachers, paraprofessionals and multiple special education positions — some of their biggest challenges have been finding daily substitute teachers and substitutes to fill in for teachers who have long-term leaves.
Of the approximately 275 districts and schools that answered the survey, about 112, or roughly 40 percent, said the battle to staff their classrooms this year was worse than it was in 2021-22, and an additional 114 said staffing this year was just as challenging as the year before.
The most striking shortages are in the state’s largest and neediest districts like Hartford, which requires an additional 283 teachers and staff members, including 78 special education paraprofessionals, 52 special education teachers and 23 speech and language pathologists; and Danbury, which needs a total of 114 teachers and staff, including 62 special education paraprofessionals.
Kim Thompson, the Danbury district’s chief talent officer and legal counsel, noted in her response to the survey that special education was an area where “the pool of applicants remains small.” She said the district was using long-term substitutes and teachers with emergency permits to cover the shortages, as well as having some teachers – particularly in the high school – take on extra assignments.
“We are covering vacancies at the secondary level with over 60 overages, due to a lack of available certified staff, at a significant cost to the district,” Thompson wrote. “In the Special Education Tutor category, we have negotiated generous hiring and retention bonuses, but continue to have few applicants with basic qualifications willing to accept the positions.”
Roberto Medic, assistant superintendent for Avon Public Schools, wrote that the district’s biggest issue was finding people who could temporarily fill in for people on medical or maternity leaves. He said the district dealt with it by hiring back retired teachers and promoting people who were certified to teach but working in non-certified positions.
“Frankly, we have gotten lucky more than anything,” Medic said. “Yet the amount of work to attract, recruit, hire and onboard candidates puts significant strains on individual administrators and staff.”
A shrinking pool, a greater need
Joseph DiBacco, superintendent in Ansonia, told CT Examiner that the district’s biggest challenge was teachers leaving the district for better paying jobs, and not always in other school districts. One of his science teachers, he said, left to work as a pharmacist, and others left the profession for jobs with more flexibility, including the ability to work remotely.
“Districts are just hiring staff from one another. There isn’t a deep talent pool for teachers or staff,” DiBacco said.
Multiple districts noted that finding applicants has been a challenge. Maria Colman, director of human resources and general administration for Wilton Public Schools, which as of March had nine vacancies, said the number of people applying for open teaching positions had shrunk considerably.
“In the past, we would receive 150 applicants for elementary positions, for example. Now, we receive an average of 30,” Colman said.
She added that long-term substitute teachers and daily substitutes were extremely difficult to find, especially with a large number of people on leave.
Missy Bavaro, principal of East Granby Middle School, echoed Colman.
“I am in a very small district and had seven extended absences this year. These included high school English, elementary PE, special education, reading and kindergarten. I was only able to fill one. This was after multiple postings and many outreach calls and emails to universities,” Bavaro said.
Michele Beers, human resources manager for Mansfield Public Schools, which reported only one vacancy, said they’ve had applicants accept an offer but then “ghost” the district.
Stephen Foresi, chief of staff for Newington Public Schools, wrote in the survey that the quality of hires had also decreased. He said the district struggled to compete with other districts that were able to offer sign-on bonuses and loan forgiveness. The district reported 29 vacancies in March.
“For those vacancies we are able to fill, the quality (knowledge, skill and dedication to the profession, including attendance) is becoming weaker and weaker by the year,” Foresi said. “We need a concerted effort to work collectively with the state and universities to ensure we are able to recruit and retain high quality future educators – as well as graduated candidates.”
A living wage
Districts also described a “constant turnover” of paraeducators, one of the highest shortage areas in the state. And those shortages don’t just affect public schools.
Karen Helene, the director of Benhaven, a private special education facility for children on the autism spectrum or with intellectual disabilities, said the school was fully staffed before the pandemic. But now, some of her more senior paraprofessionals have left to seek employment in a different field.
“This is hard work,” Helene said. “It really takes a lot out of you.”
She added that this can especially be true for people who are older, or have been in the profession for a long time.
“I appreciate when people recognize that they’re getting to the point where they just maybe don’t have the level of either physical ability or mental capacity to kind of get through the days,” she said. “We have kids that you have to be watching them every second of the day.”
This year, Helene said she’s short about six paraprofessionals. As a result, she is not accepting any additional students into her program, despite having space.
Cynthia Ross-Zweig, a paraprofessional at New Fairfield High School and president of the paraprofessionals’ union, said the major issue was pay. The starting salary for a paraeducator, she said, ranged from $15 per hour to $28 per hour in the wealthier districts, and they often don’t receive adequate benefits. Additionally, paraprofessionals are not able to collect unemployment during the summer.
“You have to look at that and say, how can somebody survive on that type of an income?” Ross Zweig said. “It’s not a question that they don’t like the work or that the work isn’t rewarding. It’s quite rewarding.”
Ross-Zweig said while the state offers grants to school districts to help with special education costs, very little of that money goes to paraprofessionals. She said she knew paraprofessionals who worked multiple jobs just to pay the bills.
While Benhaven offers good benefits, professional development and the possibility for year-round work, Helene said she feels the school’s starting salary – at $17.25 per hour – can’t compete with some of the public schools.
Both Helene and Ross-Zweig said the paraprofessional shortage was also creating a feedback loop, in which the remaining paraprofessionals in a school were taking on more work and consequently burning out more quickly.
“They’re compounding the situation. That’s exactly what’s happening. … You’re giving more work to a lesser amount of people,” Ross-Zweig said. “And then you have people that perhaps have worked in the district for many, many years and are at the point where they’re just going to retire. … If you’re only paying $15 an hour or $16 an hour, you’re not going to fill that spot.”
Attracting young people
On Tuesday, the state Department of Education announced two programs designed to increase the number of available teachers by offering student-teachers the ability to earn money while they are in school and expanding programs in high schools that guide teenagers toward becoming teachers. The state has invested $3 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to expand these programs.
The number of students getting degrees in education has decreased over the past five years. According to data from the Connecticut State College and University System, just over 1,100 students graduated from their education programs in the 2016-17 school year. Last year, that number fell to about 970 students.
Paula Talty, interim associate dean for the school of education and professional studies at Central Connecticut State University, told CT Examiner that the decline in graduates from education programs came from a variety of factors, including the pandemic, salaries and an increase in teachers retiring. She added that the university was partnering with local school districts in a variety of ways to raise those numbers.
Talty said during the Tuesday news conference that through the NextGen Educator Program, the university had been able to place over 100 students in 19 districts over the last three years.
The program, she said, allows sophomores, juniors and seniors who are not student-teaching to work in classrooms and get paid for their work. She said many of her students want to go back and teach in their hometowns.
“New teachers — budding teachers — are committed to the communities from which they came. They want to return there. They want to continue their education, and they want to become a part of the fabric of those schools,” Talty said.
Waterbury Superintendent of Schools Dr. Verna Ruffin agreed with Talty. She said some of her students in the Educators Rising program, which allows high schoolers to learn more about the teaching field, are already helping at preschools.
“For the first time ever, I believe, I experienced students telling me last year when they graduated that they were coming back to Waterbury because they wanted to become teachers,” she said.
CEA Vice President Joslyn DeLancey said Tuesday that the union supports the state’s initiative, but that more needed to be done, mainly around teacher retention. She suggested higher starting salaries and a credit toward pensions for teachers that worked during the COVID-19 pandemic — items she said would require “significant investments from the state.”
Mary Yordon, divisional vice president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Connecticut branch, told CT Examiner in a statement that she felt the apprenticeship program would help many teacher candidates. But she also stressed the need for more respect for teachers in general.
Francis Thompson, assistant superintendent for personnel in Wallingford, told CT Examiner that he believed creating a career pathway for young people who want to become teachers — similar to those that exist for STEM or business — was the best way to bring more people into the teaching profession. He said he agreed with what the state was doing.
“I really, truly believe we have to start at the high school level,” Thompson said. “High school kids — most of them — have had teachers that have influenced them, or they want to help kids. … I think fostering that interest early, before they even get to college or explore options, is the way to go.”
“I think this whole idea of grow-your-own and having a mentor, having somebody really take an interest in your professional development, goes a long way,” she said. “I often say if we can get people in here to see what we’re about, I think people will really like it.”