Staff shortages throughout K-12 education are taking a toll

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Openings are affecting student programming and services at a time we need them most

AS 2023 OPENED, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met on January 3 for a special meeting and had just one item listed on the agenda: “Goal setting process for accountability system and Student Opportunity Act.” In recognition of the fact that the pandemic has impacted students and communities differently, at that meeting the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education proposed a four-tiered set of targets for districts depending upon the amount of decline in student achievement data in each district as compared to pre-pandemic scores. As the board and the department consider these goals, it’s important to note the uphill battle facing our public schools as they work to support the students in their care.

The fact that this is a challenging time for public education across the nation seems to be universally recognized right now. The divisive political climate, residual effects of the global pandemic, learning loss due to lost time for services and instruction in recent years, exacerbated mental health concerns for students and staff, and a stagnant job market creating a dearth of qualified candidates for open positions in public schools all place stress upon a system that is struggling to meet the needs of all students. While all students are impacted, those students who have the greatest need are the very ones who are most profoundly feeling the impact of these intersecting forces.

This inability to fill vacant positions has a trickle down effect on all programming and services in our schools. When schools cannot find qualified candidates, it can mean they must collapse programs, combining students from populations that would typically be kept separate due to differing support needs, to ensure they are all getting at least some level of support and supervision. It can also have many other impacts, such as reducing the number and variety of elective courses at the secondary level to ensure that core courses are covered, eliminating support positions, inhibiting schools’ ability to develop and open new programs, consolidating and lengthening bus runs, limiting what can be served in the cafeteria, and so much more.

Staff shortages create stress, exhaustion, and burnout for those educators and staff valiantly struggling to keep things going. Teaching extra classes that are often outside their certification, larger class sizes, and trying to support students experiencing social-emotional turmoil or suffering with mental health needs all add to that load. The exhaustion these efforts create leads to increased staff absences, for which no substitutes are available, leading to coverage issues and further overload for those able to show up. It has become a vicious cycle.

Stories of building administrators forced to cover classes, clean toilets, shovel snow, or work in the cafeteria all while trying to juggle student discipline, teacher evaluation, and communications with parents are commonplace and are adding to their burden. The number of people applying for administrative positions is declining as people become less willing to step into those roles when they see how administrators and teachers are often treated by the public.

These issues are facing public schools nationwide, and Massachusetts is not unique. As the candidate pool dwindles, districts are forced to compete for new candidates and “steal” existing staff from each other, creating a constant churn of staff that does not end once the school year starts. Often in these scenarios, less affluent communities, unable to compete financially, suffer further, exacerbating the equity gaps in our state. This constant turnover of staff creates disrupted learning for students as mid-year teacher transitions interrupt the flow of learning. Individual districts and statewide organizations have each employed various strategies to improve the situation, but none have solved the issue to date.

Most concerning, however, is the fact that the situation continues to deteriorate. Educators are deeply concerned about what this situation will look like next year, and in the years to come, if action is not taken to mitigate the impact. We need to work together so that more young people want to enter the profession. We need to work together to stimulate the pipeline for desperately needed staff in hard to fill positions. We need to work together to build community supports for families because kids will continue to struggle to learn if they don’t come to us with their physical health, mental health, and societal health needs met so that they are able to access the curriculum.

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