The State Board of Education heard about the unprecedented workforce challenges facing Vermont’s education system Wednesday.

Representatives from several organizations addressed the board during its regular monthly meeting to outline the severe staffing shortages facing K-12 schools, as well as to offer some potential solutions.

Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents’ Association said his members are reporting acute shortages in all positions, with a particularly great need for custodians, bus drivers, para-educators and cafeteria workers.

“For teachers and administrators, the burdens that are placed on them in terms of having to fill and cover for positions that are not in the school systems — it adds to the stress and anxiety,” he said.

While Francis didn’t see measures that could alleviate the problem in the short term, he made several suggestions from a policy perspective that he believed would help, including relaxing regulations to make it easier for retired educators to return to the workforce, instilling confidence in current educators about the future of the state pension system, and getting a commitment from the Legislature not to enact any substantive new education-related initiatives in the coming session.

He said superintendents have told him that uncertainty about the long-term sustainability of the pension system is leading some teachers to consider employment in neighboring states and others to take retirement earlier than planned.

Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association echoed Francis, stating there are job openings in nearly every position at all grade levels, including teachers, special educators, speech language pathologists, school nurses, guidance counselors and mental health staff.

“When I was superintendent at Essex town, we had a third-grade position open (and) we had over 300 candidates. Places like that now get 40 or 50 candidates. And in rural areas, you might only get one or two, and they might not even be licensed,” he said.

Nichols said there are currently situations in schools where unfilled teaching positions are being continuously filled by subs.

He said the VPA has been working with stakeholders around the state to develop new strategies for education workforce recruitment and retention.

Strategies discussed include updating requirements to make it easier for employees to transfer licenses or certifications from other states or countries and creating teacher pipelines through career and technical education program or the Community College of Vermont.

“In terms of recruitment and retention, things don’t look great. Nationally and in Vermont, (fewer) teachers are coming into the field, more teachers are leaving the field earlier and in Vermont, we also have the disadvantage of having the weakest teacher pension and retirement program in the Northeast. We pay less on average than the states around us with the exception of Maine,” he said.

Nichols expanded on the VPA’s plan to bring retired teachers back into the workforce, explaining that fully retired teachers would be able to serve in a position for one year while still receiving retirement benefits — though they would pay into the system like any other teacher.

“It will allow us to access teachers who have retired in the last little while that are still very talented individuals, but aren’t willing to give up their retirement to come back and help us out in a crisis,” he said.

He added that some House Education Committee members have expressed interested in the plan and lawmakers may introduce it as a bill in the upcoming session.

Nichols also supported making it easier for people to transfer licenses from another state or country, adding that the state should also do what it can to simplify the process and ease any financial burdens.

“We need to step up as a state and help these people. Otherwise, we’re not going to diversify our workforce, we’re not going to fill these needed positions,” he said.

Mill Moore, executive director of Vermont Independent Schools Association, said the state’s more than 30 therapeutic schools, which serve students with severe disabilities, are facing a particularly acute staffing crisis.

“Some of those schools are offering bonuses of up to $5,000 to get somebody with a credential to work in their schools,” he said. “In other words, they are desperate — desperate for credentialed employees because those schools cannot function without adequately credentialed people.”

Moore added that several therapeutic schools have had to turn away students because they cannot operate at full capacity due to a lack of personnel.

Don Tinney, president of the Vermont-NEA, which represents more than 13,000 teachers and school staff around the state, said addressing issues like accessible and affordable child care and student loan debt forgiveness would go a long way to help with workforce recruitment and retention.

In the short term, he pointed to examples from other parts of the country, such as a Pennsylvania school district that is paying subs up to $200 a day, as well as other districts that are offering sizable retention bonuses for teachers.

Tinney noted that additional responsibilities related to various initiatives and directives being heaped on classroom teachers — even before the pandemic — were another factor driving educators out of the profession.

“The pressure this year on educators to, quote, ‘get kids caught up,’ has been unbearable for some,” he said, adding that contending with standardized testing in this climate is only compounding the problem.

In an email to the Herald earlier this week, Slate Valley Unified Union School District Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell reported around 18 unfilled positions across the district’s six schools.

Staff absentee rates are also high, she noted. Due to a combination of normal illness, COVID-19 protocols and breakthrough cases, only about 50% of absences are being filled by substitutes daily.

According to Olsen-Farrell, there were 44 staff absences in the district last Friday and only 22 available substitutes.

“Administrators, office personnel, etc., are all subbing. Teachers are taking on extra duties and we are pulling our interventionists to cover classrooms,” she stated.

Board of Education member Tom Lovett pointed out that the workforce crisis was a broad issue and not unique to education, stating that the solution should be “cross-sectional.”

“So I think there might be an opportunity for either the State Board (of Education), but certainly the state government, to make some changes in those areas. And it would help all sectors of the economy in this environment,” he said.

jim.sabataso @rutlandherald.com

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