CT schools facing ‘unprecedented’ staff shortage

Photo of Cayla Bamberger
Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven photographed on August 18, 2020.

Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven photographed on August 18, 2020.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

HARTFORD — More than 1,000 certified staff member positions were vacant last month in Connecticut schools, almost three months into the school year, according to state officials.

On Wednesday, the state board of education authorized emergency certifications to fill those positions with qualified educators. The Connecticut State Department of Education cited COVID-19 for the rise to “unprecedented staffing challenges” that — at last count in mid-November — meant a thousand positions are unfilled.

“I’m sure you’re all aware of the challenges around staffing, and staffing shortages,” Charlene Russell-Tucker, the education commissioner, told the board. “It’s a real area of crisis that I know our districts are facing.”

Last year, the state issued 174 emergency certifications, according to Shauna Tucker, the department’s chief talent officer, to reassign educators to teach in staffing shortage areas. But even as schools have returned to some level of normalcy with in-person classes and widespread vaccination, staffing has remained a major challenge in several of the state’s districts.

“This affords the district the opportunity to move certified teachers within their districts to fill the specific needs that they have at the time,” said Russell-Tucker.

The staffing crisis has not hit all schools equally. Some districts have faced drastic staffing shortages, particularly in the state’s largest cities. Bridgeport, for example, had close to 70 teacher and staff vacancies last month; in New Haven, the school board was warned the shortage and a lack of substitutes has existing staff working beyond their capacity.

Wealthier cities and towns such as Greenwich, Stamford and New Canaan seemed to have weathered the storm as early as the start of this school year, although those districts reported difficulty filling positions in specific areas like special education and language arts.

The town-to-town discrepancies and persistent shortages have led district officials to suggest their staffing woes won’t fizzle out when the pandemic ends.

“We’ve heard from superintendents they can’t compete with other districts because they may be offering signing bonuses or higher salaries, and maybe less stressful environments,” said Russell-Tucker.

To respond, the state has tried introducing what officials hope will be long-term solutions as well, such as grow-your-own-teacher models and perks for those entering the workforce.

In recent years, the education department has introduced programs like Educators Rising, which prepares Connecticut high school students for careers in education, and NextGen Educators, a program that brings Connecticut college students majoring in education into classrooms.

Most recently, the state introduced a student loan subsidy program in August for educators who commit to teaching in Connecticut’s 33 highest need school districts. It’s an effort to attract a diverse talent pool of teachers to the profession and into the areas that need staff most.

Department officials added they’re not just focused on recruiting, but also retaining educators, especially as many feel burned out teaching through a pandemic.

“The educators, they are stressed,” said Russell-Tucker. “There’s a lot that they are facing, so how do we support them?”

“You’ll continue to hear us have this conversation here,” Russell-Tucker told the board. “Because it is one that is really important that we continue to work on — not just for the short term, but really for the long-term.”