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January 27, 2022

Schools beset by teacher shortage

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—Education leaders across Santa Cruz County—and the rest of the state—are struggling to fill classroom teaching positions and find substitute teachers, a problem that has left some classes without educators and required administrators at some schools to occasionally take over classes.

According to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), 13,558 teachers retired during the 2020-21 school year, an 8% increase from the previous year.  Among those, 52% said they retired earlier than they originally planned. Most of the teachers that took early retirement listed challenges that came with the Covid-19 pandemic as their primary reason. 

Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah says the problem was also compounded during the previous year of distance learning, when districts sought substitute teachers with the technical skills necessary to deliver online content, while many of those used to in-person teaching were left out.

This has meant that finding substitute teachers has become extremely difficult. Sabbah this week put out a call to the community to consider applying for a substitute permit.

“We’re hoping to do a call to the community to consider getting into the field of education, and helping us with the shortage and maybe discover a real positive experience working with young people that would be fulfilling for them,” Sabbah said. 

The county has waived the $30 fingerprinting fee for those applying. In addition, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing has increased the days a long-term substitute can be in the classroom from 30 to 60 days.

“The ultimate goal, and the most important thing, is providing students with the very best educational experience in the classroom,” Sabbah said. “Not being able to call on a consistent and reliable pool of subs really makes that difficult.”

Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers President Nelly Vaquera-Boggs says that, as of Sept. 17, there were eight teacher vacancies at both Watsonville and Pajaro Valley high schools.

This has meant that all Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSA) have been placed in classrooms, Vaquera-Boggs said. In addition, many teachers who this year were slated to fill such positions as reading intervention specialist have found themselves stepping into classrooms when their colleagues are sick.

In addition, many teachers are losing their prep periods, Vaquera-Boggs added, which can compound an already difficult job.

“Most teachers work outside their contract time,” she said. “Teachers have families, and mental health is an issue that is inclusive of teachers. Our educators need to make sure they have that time outside of their contracted day to reset.”

Vaquera-Boggs says that in one instance a Watsonville High teacher was tasked with monitoring three separate classes.

“Ours is a big district, but we shouldn’t be at this number of vacancies,” Vaquera-Boggs said.

While she agrees the pandemic contributed to the problem, Vaquera-Boggs says that doesn’t tell the whole story. School leadership is also to blame, she says. 

“This is a culmination of many years of districts not prioritizing its staff that works with students,” she said. “Not prioritizing them by ensuring that the salary schedule meets the local cost of living. There wasn’t anything done by this district to help mitigate the attrition of teachers.”

PVUSD Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Alison Niizawa says that the entire state is facing a crisis, along with most other sectors of the workforce, including the hospitality and restaurant industry.  

“Trying to find people to do work has just been challenging,” she said. 

Niizawa says that the district is currently short 20 classroom teaching positions. 

The PVUSD Board of Trustees on Wednesday unanimously approved a plan to increase pay for long-term substitutes from $200 to $240 per day.

CalSTRS, meanwhile, has waived the “sit-out period” for retirees, so they can immediately start working as substitutes, Niizawa says. In addition, student teachers with at least 90 credit units under their belts can also get temporary teaching permits, she says.

“We’re just working really hard to get these positions filled,” Niizawa said. 

[A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the state has waived the requirement for a bachelor’s degree to become a substitute teacher. — Editor]

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