Districts, state officials working to fill teacher vacancies

Ever since the start of the pandemic, schools across the country have been struggling to fill teacher vacancies.
Published: Aug. 23, 2023 at 3:22 PM EDT
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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - Ever since the start of the pandemic, schools across the country have been struggling to fill teacher vacancies. Now, three years later, districts in our area have seen improvements, but there is still room to grow and the state is stepping in to make adjustments to help.

“Last year was an absolute crisis,” said Michael Moriarty, board member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. “We were getting advisor notices and so we got a lot of advice and took some action over the course of the last school year, which we hope is helping now.”

“In the state, Boston, Worcester, Springfield, but then you can apply that same idea to everything in western Massachusetts, so Holyoke, Chicopee, Westfield, Northampton. Anywhere you have more jobs, you have more openings,” Moriarty added.

The state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has been working to address the hiring challenges.

“I don’t like doing anything that seems like lowering standards but nonetheless, we have to be responsive to what is going on,” Moriarty explained.

The board has been responding directly to specific challenges being seen in districts across Massachusetts. As finding teachers for specific areas like special education and English language learning has proven more challenging, the state education board approved two licensing changes this past June to help.

“We then made a very limited adjustment to teachers of moderate and severe special needs, and English language learning, as well as school nurses. That is another really hard point to find staffing for. In those cases, if you already have a license and you have severe students with English language, learning needs, or with an IEP, instead of doing an internship process, before, we would license you in that area. We are now giving a provisional license and you can do that internship after,” Moriarty added.

Western Mass News is getting answers on how districts in our area are taking advantage of these changes.

“People do have current licensure involved. They might have specific coursework that is actually close or leading to specialization of special education or something like that, so you can get an emergency licensure and we have been applying for those regularly,” said Chicopee Public Schools Supt. Dr. Marcus Ware.

Ware told Western Mass News that his district has over 50 vacancies still, but his office is working feverishly to fill them, even into the start of the year.

“Does class-size get bigger not necessarily. When I look at some of the current people who are in Chicopee and you talk about growing our own, there are people that have different talents and different licensure’s or different paths to the certification process and we move those people around,” Ware explained. “We ask a teacher who has dual licensures, multiple licensures, ‘Can you actually teach over here this year?’ before we actually impact the classrooms. Our goal is to really see who we can use and utilize.”

That’s a similar practice to what Springfield Public Schools is doing to fill their remaining openings.

“We won’t combine classes. We will be using staff to cover those classes, so all of the classes will be up and ready,” said Springfield Public Schools Superintendent Dan Warwick.

Warwick said recruitment has been key in getting the city’s staff numbers up.

“We have always offered incentives in some highly specialized areas where there is long-term problems getting staff, like special education, ESL, so we did some pretty aggressive incentives in the contract to incentivize teachers to come to Springfield for those areas,” Warwick noted. “We have done a lot more advertising about it, so that we get the word out that we are offering these incentives to really try and get the best staff we possibly can.”

Part of their recruitment efforts include differential pay for those specialized teaching sectors that struggle to attract staff like special education, STEM, and ESL, and Warwick said the district is working to find staff members that better reflect their student population and even hosted a job fair in Puerto Rico.

“We are trying to get stuff that mirrors our student population, which is very important. We have also done a lot of outreach in historically black colleges and universities, so we’re doing everything we can to not only recruit highly qualified staff, but improve the diversity of our staff as well,” Warwick noted.

The Springfield Public School district is also working to move its current staff up the ranks to assist with the teacher shortage.

“We have been able to fill many jobs with paraprofessionals. That para pipeline program where we offer other free college or support to go through college has really helped us ramp up our staffing,” Warwick explained.

In Chicopee, Ware said his district is hoping to find ways to not only fill these spots, but keep them that way.

“Looking for ways to entice and keep our staff that is currently here and then, as I get my feet wet, we will probably have a conversation about what does that look like for retention,” Ware added.

Moriarty said he is hopeful things are turning around.

“It sounds like things are balancing out over time. Good hires are made, people will become comfortable in the work setting that they have and then we have fewer and fewer turnovers and then you just have the norm, which is people cycling out at the end of their careers and people cycling in at the beginning of their careers. I think we’re not all the way there yet, but we’re moving in the right direction,” Morirarty said.

Moriarty told us that, while larger class sizes are not ideal, that is often times the solution, especially for classes like art, music, and language.