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Report: schools can’t fill teacher vacancies

An average 20% boost in teacher salaries in the past four years has apparently done little to entice people into the classroom and keep experienced staffers there.

A new report Thursday by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association finds that schools surveyed were able to fill just 28% of the vacancies they had due to retirement and other reasons that teachers leave their jobs.

That’s not to say there weren’t adults standing in front of classrooms. But districts had to make up the difference, largely with having their current teachers work extra hours or using long-term substitutes.

Justin Wing, the organization’s immediate past president, acknowledged that filling vacancies has been a perennial problem in Arizona schools. But Wing said there’s something different in this year’s report: the number of experienced teachers who resigned as the school year began.

In “normal” years, Wing said there always are new teachers who quickly conclude that the job isn’t what they expected and decide to pursue another career. This year, he said, the problem appears to be directly related to COVID-19.

The 145 school districts and charter schools that responded to the survey reported 751 teachers leaving at the beginning of the year.

Of that, 326 of those resignations were teachers who said they were quitting outright or retiring while citing the coronavirus as the prime reasons. And another 342 said they were taking a year off, without pay, due to COVID-19.

The districts also reported 633 other non-teaching staff who resigned or retired citing the virus as the primary reason.

COVID-19 aside, Wing said the “why” behind the staffing problems remain unclear.

Salaries, he said, remain an issue.

“Even though pay has gone up, we were in a big hole,” he said.

Facing a teacher walkout in 2018, Gov. Doug Ducey pushed through funding designed to provide a 20% average pay hike over four years. This is the final year of that increase.

That did not mean all teachers are getting that much more, with variables including what teachers were making before and how district officials chose to allocate those dollars.

It helped, Wing said — but only to a point.

“We’ve climbed that ladder but we’re still not out of that hole,” he said. “We’re still bottom five in average salaries.”

But Wing said there are bigger issues

“The main one is, why are high school kids not going into the teaching profession,” Wing said.

He acknowledged that state lawmakers have altered requirements to become a teacher, allowing people to make mid-career switches without having to go back to school for a full-blown education degree. And that, Wing said, has been important.

“I don’t know what we’d do without that,” he said. But Wing said the solution is going to have to come from getting more people into the profession right out of college.

That, he said, is going to remain a problem.

For example, he said Arizona has one of the highest student-to-teacher ratios in the country.’

“Kids see that,” Wing said, a situation that hasn’t changed in the 12 years they’ve been in public school classes.

“They’re seeing that the teacher’s not able to emphasize on each individual because of that high class size,” he continued. “They see the stresses and the toll that takes on a teacher.”

State schools chief Kathy Hoffman said the results of the annual survey “are startling, but not altogether shocking for the education community.”

She, too, said she has seen the impact of COVID-19.

“Some educators make the difficult decision to leave the classroom,” Hoffman said in a prepared statement.

“I know this decision is deeply personal to each educator,” she continued. “And I hope that one day we can recruit them back to our schools.”

Hoffman cited the work of her agency’s Educator Recruitment and Retention Team which she formed last November. Aides to the schools chief said it is designed to function as a hub of information about what has worked at some schools to keep teachers in the classroom as well as to provide help to other schools which are having challenges.

There was no immediate response to the report from Ducey.

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