A more challenging year than last: How educators, school staff are stepping up in the face of shortages
Unfilled positions, curricular changes, a substitute shortage and the ongoing pandemic
Although many in the school district hoped that this year would represent a return to a pre-pandemic normal, so far, it has been anything but — especially for school staff.
With staff and teacher vacancies, curricular changes, a substitute shortage and the ongoing pandemic, teachers and staff around the district are facing another unprecedented year.
“This year is challenging in different ways than last year,” said Karen Kolibaba, a fifth grade teacher at Red Hill Elementary School and president of the Eagle County Education Association.
Even though students are back to five days a week of in-person learning and with a full roster of extracurricular activities, maintaining a consistent education while managing an overflowing workload has proved challenging.
“When administrators and teacher leaders are covering classes, we are not able to be as responsive as we have been in the past,” said Stephanie Gallegos, the principal of Homestake Peak School. “Additionally, teachers don’t have the opportunity to receive coaching to help them improve their craft to provide the best possible instruction to students.”
Gallegos said that this year, Homestake Peak started with six unfilled positions, three unfilled positions for permanent substitutes and one unfilled long-term maternity leave position. Up until the second to last week of September, she said these positions were all vacant.
Overall, the Eagle County School District currently has 70 unfilled positions.
As part of its COVID-19 data dashboard, Eagle County Schools has been tracking the number of unfilled staff positions — as a result of PTO, sick time and other absences — since the start of school. For the 34 school days between Aug. 16 and Oct. 1, district-wide, the average number of unfilled positions is about 25 a day, with the highest being 47 on Sept. 17 and the lowest being four on the first day of school.
At the Sept. 22 school board meeting, Superintendent Philip Qualman said that this metric is the “key threshold” for the district to determine whether students can remain in person.
Compounding both these employment vacancies as well as normal staff absences, the district doesn’t have enough substitute teachers. For most of this school year year, only about 30% of teacher absences have been able to be filled by a guest teacher.
While there were a number of challenges hiring this year, the district did hire a number of new staff members ahead of the school year. However, it is not an easy first year for many of the new teachers.
“I cannot fathom what it must be like for them being thrown into this year in a sink-or-swim model,” Kolibaba said. “The more senior members of a team would be stepping up during plan time to help new teachers with ensuring they have rules and procedures as well as systems in place for learning. They would also be carrying the brunt of the planning work for their newer teammates. It always takes time to adjust to those new expectations and needs in a different area.”
And at every school, it’s the teachers and school staff that are feeling the ramifications.
“Everyone has felt the impact,” Gallegos said. “Administrators and teacher leaders have had to step in to plan and teach classes on a regular basis. When we have used all of our administrators and teacher leaders to cover classes, we have had to divide up classes where we don’t have coverage and we send those kids to other teachers, making class sizes larger.”
For teachers, this means going above and beyond their regular realm of duties.
“Teachers are stepping into multiple roles and helping fill the gaps,” Kolibaba said. “Every teacher has been stepping up to help cover duties and ensure that each class has a certified teacher. People are pitching in and working together.”
For elementary school teachers, a new literacy curriculum — which was implemented at the start of this year — has added to an already mounting workload.
“Even with the two paid days of training at the beginning of the year, I am spending exorbitant amounts of time sorting through it and figuring out how to adjust it to the needs of my students. It is taking me much longer to prepare for each day and class,” Kolibaba said.
She added that her building and other elementary schools are looking to transition some of its professional learning community time to delving into this new curriculum.
And while the district has stepped in to offer $30 an hour for teachers that are giving up planning time to teach additional classes or absorbing a class of eight or more students, it’s still taking time away from teachers.
“Plan time has been a concern and issue for educators forever,” Kolibaba said. “We are lucky that our collective bargaining agreement stipulates 300 minutes of plan time a week, but we always need more. When we are multitasking and providing assistance outside of our responsibilities, we need additional time.”
Recently, negotiations teams for the district and the teacher’s union agreed on adjustments to this agreement in an attempt to give some planning time back to teachers in light of staffing shortages. This amendment required that each school create a plan to increase plan time for educators, including the ability to pull this time from the agreement’s required professional learning community minutes (set by the bargaining agreement at 75-minutes a week).
Areas in need
However, even as existing staff members step up, there are certain vacancies that are harder to step in for than others.
Kolibaba said that from the teachers who are part of the Eagle County Education Association, many are concerned about the most vulnerable students receiving the specialized services they require.
“A fear or concern for many of our non-classroom teachers is that they will be pulled to help cover a classroom and that some of our most vulnerable students will be left without the support that interventionists and specialists provide,” she said.
Of the 70 district-wide vacancies, 16 are in the preschool, early education program, eight are in the transportation department, seven are in nutritional services and the district currently has only one of five nurse positions staffed. The vacancies in these departments are having the most widespread impact on operations, and on teachers.
Within early childhood and preschool, these vacancies have left certain programs unable to meet state requirements and thus unable to open. The district had to close one infant classroom, two preschool classrooms and the extended day program at Homestake Peak. Part of the challenge with filling these positions is that the salary range doesn’t quite match the certifications required.
“Our compensation is significantly not at the level of the job (and) duties of the certified teachers, and we have several teachers that are leaving for private providers, which we’ve never faced before,” said Shelley Smith at the Sept. 8 board meeting.
The shortage of district nurses has become increasingly concerning across the district, as these nurses certify the health specialists in each school and ensure medical delegations are happening in schools.
“This has been especially heavy for us at Red Hill since many of our students have medical plans and receive medication while at school,” Kolibaba said. “We are hopeful that the district will be able to fill the nurse positions, but a big impact has been that we cannot take students on field trips that leave our campus — as we will not be covered to provide these medications.”
The district has already reached an agreement with the Eagle County Education Association in an attempt to remedy this with an estimated increase in salary of $8,000 a year for all school nurses. The school board is voting on this on Wednesday.
Homestake Peak, Gallegos said, was hit the hardest in special education, cafeteria positions, paraprofessionals, permanent subs and math teachers. And Kolibaba noted a similar shortage in special education at Red Hill.
“Every single person that works with students has been working diligently to ensure that all our students are receiving the supports and services they need to be successful. This has meant that people outside of special education roles are providing supports and services to help ensure each child receives what they need,” she said. “I am definitely doing more to help support my learners with (individualized education plans) more than a typical year.”
And Eagle County is not alone in these hard-to-staff areas. Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said that across the state the “hard-to-fill” positions are math, special education, school nurses, bus drivers and staff for school nutrition services.
Finding creative solutions
Going forward, all parties — district staff, school administrators, the school board and the teacher’s union — agree that this is a problem in need of a solution.
“Our plates are overflowing, we need to look at how we can feasibly remove or share the loads on the plates,” Kolibaba said.
Over the past several weeks, members of each of these parties have been working to find creative solutions to not only hire new staff, but to keeping existing staff in the district.
Qualman is presenting on many of these solutions at this week’s board meeting on Wednesday — some of which rely on funds set aside for the unfilled positions as well as unassigned fund balances from stimulus funds and cost savings.
Some of these possible solutions include hiring incentives for nurses and guest teachers, new allocations for health assistants, as well as a market adjustment for guest teachers, permanent subs, Pre-K paraprofessionals, health assistants, paras and student support specialists.
Going forward, there will also be future negotiations meetings with Eagle County Schools and Eagle County Education Association to make further compensation adjustments for teachers. The next negotiations meeting on this topic will be Oct. 20.
Part of these strategies will deal with the possibility of additional positions to fill. This year’s student count is expected to be finalized later this month. And with the preliminary counts, a number of schools were trending higher than expected, which could lead to additional staffing requirements to those schools — creating more jobs the school has to find people to fill.
Until these adjustments and agreements are finalized, members of the public can also extend a helping hand.
“The best thing the public can do to support us, is sign-up to be a guest teacher,” Kolibaba said.
Gallegos has some of her own ideas on finding assistance.
“I would love to tap into pre-service teachers who are taking educational classes or retired members of our community who would like to work with kids,” she said. “We have also thought about making sure people know more about the positions we have available and making sure we are providing the support people need when they come to our building. We could even customize positions by interest or amount of time people had to spend for the day.”
But overall, she said, they just need people to show up.
“Come to our schools and help,” she said. “Our goal is to keep our school open and kids learning in person.”
Looking ahead, it’s hard to see when staffing challenges will subside, because many of the local challenges — housing, child care — are facing all employers, not just the school district.
“Many people were hired and then rescinded their acceptances,” Kolibaba said. “The cost of living in our valley is exorbitant and salaries in surrounding communities are higher.”
Gallegos noted similar challenges as well.
“While we did see challenges last year with COVID-19, this year the challenges are different,” Gallegos said. “This year we had people turn down job offers because they could not find housing.”
However, unlike other employers, the school district is facing challenges related to statewide education funding and challenges. Colorado is ranked 43 out of all 50 states in funding per pupil, which makes it difficult to recruit and retain educators. This also means that Eagle County Schools is far from the only school district having a difficult time staffing vacancies right now.
“I’m hopeful that an end will come, but I am not optimistic,” Kolibaba said. “I think this will be a long-term concern until Colorado can figure out its education funding issues. We are funded at one of the lowest rates per pupil compared to other states.”
And not being alone in this challenge means that the district may look to the state for guidance on improving the situation.
O’Neil noted that this shortage is not necessarily new, and possibly far from over.
“Colorado isn’t alone in having a teaching shortage. This is an epidemic across the country and has been going on long before the pandemic,” she said, later adding that it was hard to tell if it would be a long-term concern. “Unfortunately, we are in a bit of a wait-and-see mode this year. But what we do know is the work of educating our Colorado students is continuing to be difficult during the pandemic and our education workforce is clearly telling us that they feel that pressure.”
Regardless, the department and Colorado legislature have made some positive moves forward, she said.
Last year, state legislature passed a bill, SB21-185, which provided support for educator candidates in the areas of recruitment, counseling and mentoring. The department of education is working on using federal ESSER dollars to develop statewide programs for teachers in their first three years. Additionally, the department partnered with other entities to establish TeachColorado.org.
“This initiative partners with educator preparation programs and Colorado school districts to promote education, match make job opportunities, support teachers into educator preparation programs, provides one-on-one counseling, offer fee reimbursement, and elevates the profession through public service campaigns,” O’Neil said.
Qualman, at the Sept. 22 board meeting, said he has been pushing for possible future legislation to help with recruiting.
“We’re not the only state that’s in this problem, but when we’re the 36th out of 50 states in what we fund K-12 education, we’re going to have a hard time recruiting so we have to get a very thoughtful, consistent plan to reach out to educators from around the nation,” Qualman said.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.