With three kids attending schools where the learning model is different from the district where she teaches high school math, Kristle Rodriguez has struggled at times to balance the needs of her students and her children.
Rodriguez’s children go to school in Waterbury, where students attend in-person classes for half the day and learn remotely the remainder of the day. In Litchfield where Rodriguez teaches, however, students have had in-person learning for most of the school year.
But she’s been able to make it work because her district has allowed her to adjust her schedule so she can oversee her children’s remote learning.
“I think part of the reason that I’ve been given a little bit of flexibility from my administration is because of the teacher shortage,” she said. “So [the district’s] in a tough situation too.”
The teacher shortage in Connecticut was a problem long before this year — a month into the 2014-15 school year, for example, 250 teaching positions were unfilled statewide.
According to a 2019 report by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a public policy think tank based out of the State University of New York, Connecticut has seen persistent teaching shortages in bilingual, math, science and special education. Additional factors contributing to the shortage, the report noted, are that more people have left the state’s teacher workforce and there’s been a decline in teacher preparation program enrollment.
The state Department of Education has tried to solve the problem by providing incentives, but the need for more educators in Connecticut’s K-12 classrooms grew this school year as the pandemic created new challenges.
Since students returned to the classroom at the beginning of this school year — either in person or remotely — districts have been forced to close temporarily or adjust learning models as COVID cases cropped up. This, in part, is because a growing number of teachers have been getting sick with the virus and going into quarantine. As of Dec. 30, 92 new staff COVID cases were reported in K-12 schools, according to the state’s data system.
Concerns about a worsening teacher shortage began even before students headed back to classes in August. Dozens of educators said they did not feel safe returning to a school building and requested they be allowed to teach remotely instead. A recent survey released by the Connecticut Education Association and AFT Connecticut shows that this concern persists, with 58% of the 4,000 educators who responded saying they still worry about safety and the risk of contracting COVID-19 at school.
“The whole process has been extremely difficult on educators, who are concerned about getting sick and spreading the virus to their families,” AFT Connecticut President Jan Hochadel said in a statement. “Many are also concerned about not being able to do their best because they are stressed, pushed beyond their limits, left with little or no planning time. That’s especially true for those forced to teach both in-person and remotely at the same time.”
For educators like Rodriguez, having children in a separate school district with a different learning model is another factor that makes it challenging for teachers to show up to class.
At the start of the school year, Edward Lok, who is also a teacher in Litchfield, said there were a couple of days at the beginning of the school year he had to call out because his wife had to work and his kids, who attend school in Region 10, were learning remotely.
Even with everyone on the same remote learning schedule now, Lok added, it’s still hard to juggle his personal and professional responsibilities.
“I think it’s difficult for everybody,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be a solution that’s going to help everyone in every situation.”
The state Board of Education gave local school officials more flexibility over hiring and deploying teachers in August to prepare for “unique staffing challenges” brought on by the pandemic. But as the teacher shortage continued to grow, the state created additional opportunities for districts to hire more educators, such as creating pipelines between K-12 schools and local college students pursuing degrees in education.
Through programs like Educators Rising and NextGen Educators, the state hopes to both diversify Connecticut’s teacher workforce and relieve the ongoing shortage. There are currently more than 30 students in the NextGen Educators program, according to Peter Yazbak, spokesperson for the state Department of Education.
“In the short-term, it will help districts struggling to fill current staffing shortages meet their immediate needs and make connections with potential talent eager to contribute to student success,” said the state’s outgoing Commissioner of Education, Miguel Cardona, about NextGen Educators. “In the long-term, it advances our goals of filling persistent shortage areas and building an educator workforce that reflects the full diversity of our students.”
Gov. Ned Lamont also signed an executive order earlier in December allowing districts to hire short-term substitute teachers without having to get approval first from the state Department of Education.
“The Executive Order didn’t remove or change any standards; It simply streamlined a process that already existed so that districts could have greater control over their hiring process and timeline,” Yazbak said in an email. He added that this agreement was put in place to allow quarantining teachers to not have to use their sick time and continue working remotely while an adult is in the class to help deliver instruction.
Over 9,000 permits and emergency authorizations have been processed since July, according to the state Department of Education.
Kelly Education, a national company that helps train and place educators in schools, has played a key role in getting substitute teachers into Connecticut classrooms this school year, as most districts have used their services to find substitutes.
Although school districts also continue to deal with substitute teacher shortages, Brad Beckner, vice president for Kelly Education’s Northeast region, said they received more than 100 referrals for high school alumni from several districts over the last few weeks. Since the implementation of the governor’s executive order, 130 short-term substitutes without a bachelor’s degree have been authorized by Kelly Education.
“This is not only something that immediately has a positive impact on our ability to cover the classrooms and to ensure the continuity of education for our students,” Beckner said, adding that the practice of bringing recent high school graduates into classrooms could continue after the pandemic ends.
“This is a job preview for these individuals that may last a lifetime,” he said. “This is an opportunity for them to experience something and to get involved in the noble profession of education that could lead to a future career that maybe would not have been possible if they not had this experience.”
How substitutes have helped
The steps taken by the Lamont administration have helped school districts like Cheshire, where 50 former students applied to fill its substitute teacher shortage.
Cheshire Public Schools Superintendent Jeffrey Solan said he tried to find solutions for teachers nervous about returning to their classrooms at the beginning of the school year. One idea he had was to swap a few teachers with neighboring district Meriden so that those who felt more comfortable teaching remotely would be accommodated. Meriden had more students participating in remote learning at the time.
“You could take a leave, but you don’t get paid, and that’s not really a great option,” Solan said. “So, you know, putting myself in that teacher’s shoes, it’s like, alright, well, this person is clearly incredibly anxious about the situation.”
With the district’s usual substitutes also feeling hesitant to teach in-person, Solan said he still needed to figure out a way to relieve the shortage. So he sent an email out to recent Cheshire graduates in late-November asking them for help. He said the district is continuing to get more applications from former students in addition to the 50 who have already returned.
“I’ve been in the district for 15 years, I can hardly remember a time when all of our sub positions were filled, and they’re all filled because we were able to get this incredible turnout from our alumni,” he said. “What that means is now I don’t have to worry about teachers who have to take time away from prepping for their classes to go cover another class. So everybody’s winning.”
For a few days this school year, Rodriguez has also had to use personal days to stay home and help her kids when their learning models switched from hybrid to remote.
On those days, she said, she was still able to teach virtually while a substitute was in the class to provide hands-on instruction. But, she cautioned, just because districts can find someone to stand in a classroom, it’s not the same as having “quality teachers, especially in a shortage area like math.”
Rodriguez said it would have been helpful if the state had insisted on more consistency from districts, both in terms of learning models and how they handle staff with children. She said that while she understands everyone is trying to balance the needs of students with the needs of staff, the lack of consistency is not going to be sustainable for much longer.
“I think one of my concerns is how many teachers are going to just say I’m done,” Rodriguez said, adding that there have been times she’s thought about leaving the profession because of the challenges she’s faced this year. “I’ve done this since I got out of college. I’m not ready to just walk away but at the same time, it has crossed my mind … This is just gonna feed into that teacher shortage.”