‘All hands on deck’ at Illinois schools amid staff shortages – Chicago Tribune

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Weeks after Illinois students began what is predicted to be a more “normal” school year, a steep shortage of teachers and other essential employees is forcing many administrators to take an all-hands-on-deck approach.

“While things may be feeling a bit more regular with the start of this school year, especially after two years of the pandemic, we still have a major staffing crisis in many of our districts,” said Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest union.

A majority of the union’s roughly 135,000 members are seeing shortages in their districts in both teaching and support staff positions, including bus drivers, custodians, paraprofessionals and secretaries, Griffin said.

“This time of year is always stressful for educators, parents and students, but this year we’re also seeing teachers being asked to pick up more work in order to cover for unfilled positions and support staff taking over additional duties as well as subbing for teachers,” she said.

Efforts to ensure the state’s classrooms are staffed, buses are running and school buildings are cleaned is unfolding as a nationwide school employee shortage prompted the White House to announce a new initiative to jump-start hiring.

The U.S. Department of Education announced Wednesday it plans to partner with talent recruitment and job platforms including ZipRecruiter, Handshake and Indeed “to make it easier for states and school districts to source, recruit, and hire job seeking teachers and school professionals, and to help more Americans find jobs in education.”

For Illinois educators like Trisha Meyers, a paraprofessional in Crystal Lake, the statewide scarcity of substitute teachers has created hardships this fall that state and federal recruitment and retention programs will not resolve in the short term.

“Paraprofessionals who are able to sub for a teacher are often asked to sub at the very last minute … sometimes as they’re walking in the door, and they’re not always prepared,” said Meyers, president of the support staff union at Prairie Grove Consolidated School District 46.

“Even if the paraprofessional has their sub certification, that is not part of their job description, and not what they signed up for,” Meyers said.

Superintendent John Bute said District 46 has asked paraprofessionals with substitute teaching qualifications to step in for teachers more often over the last 18 months as other substitutes have been scarce.

“Because these paraprofessionals have other responsibilities, we make every effort to limit their usage as substitute teachers,” he said in a statement.

When paraprofessionals are used as substitute teachers, the district pays them “higher wages (per contract) and have offered to give them even more money for this school year,” Bute said. The amount of money for the 2022-23 school year is still under negotiation with the union, he said.

While there are no vacant teacher positions, Bute said the district hopes to hire four additional paraprofessionals, three bus drivers and three custodians, and he said substitute teachers are needed in all areas.

Officials with the Illinois State Board of Education said they will not know the number of educator vacancies in the state until next month.

At this time last year, there were 5,302 vacancies statewide, including 2,135 certified teachers, 2,439 paraprofessionals, 638 school support staff members and 90 administrators, according to an October 2021 ISBE survey. The data do not include substitute teachers and bus drivers.

The survey showed Illinois added 6,801 new teachers to the profession last fall, for a net increase of 1,240 teachers, and a teacher vacancy of 1.5% statewide.

“Overall, the teacher shortage has improved in Illinois, and it has improved because we have invested in keeping the teacher pipeline strong,” said Carmen Ayala, superintendent of the State Board of Education.

While many Illinois districts that enroll children from low-income urban and rural communities faced teacher shortages long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ayala said new evidence-based funding, which changes the way school districts receive the bulk of state funds, is sending more resources to the state’s most underfunded schools.

While the severity of teacher shortages varies among school districts, Ayala said many schools are short special education and bilingual education teachers.

“As we are getting back to a new normal, people are feeling more comfortable about entering this amazing profession,” Ayala said.

“We’re doing everything we can to attract individuals, and the flip side is the retention piece,” Ayala said.

At Elgin-based Unit School District 46, officials are planning another job fair with open interviews for positions such as paraeducators, bus drivers and teachers, Superintendent Tony Sanders said.

“Our doors are open and all classrooms have an adult teaching students; however, we still need more permanent staff,” Sanders said.

In Cary School District 26, “it’s been an all-hands-on-deck approach this year, and last year,” said Laura Whyte, co-president of the teachers union.

“Classes have to be covered, but people are being pulled in different directions,” said Whyte, a District 26 speech pathologist.

Whyte’s co-president in the union and a fellow District 26 speech pathologist, Annette Bear, said she is troubled by how often educators are being asked to pinch-hit, and above all, the impact on students.

“Students are like, ‘Whoa … who’s this?’” Bear said. “Students are used to their teacher or aide, and when they have someone they have never seen before, it is very inconsistent and stressful for the kids.”

Officials with Cary School District 26 were not immediately available for comment.

Benjamin Felton, deputy chief talent officer at Chicago Public Schools, said that given the district’s abundance of teacher recruitment and retention programs, “CPS is well-positioned to weather the storm.”

“Despite the national shortage, and the labor market being exceptionally tight, we have more teachers than we did a year ago,” Felton said.

As of Monday, more than 20,700 school-based teachers were on staff at CPS, an increase of more than 200 from the beginning of last year. The vacancy rate is about 4.5%, which officials anticipate will continue to decline, a CPS spokeswoman said.

Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates said the district needs more community-based recruitment and support through programs such as Grow Your Own, a state-funded initiative to increase the number of diverse teachers in public schools.

“Our students desperately need more trained adults to help them tackle the trauma of both the pandemic and the inequities that hurt their families and their neighborhoods long before COVID,” she said in a statement. “To meet those needs, CPS has got to retain educators and work to expand diversity in our teaching ranks.”

Of the district’s new teacher hires, 48% are Black or Latino, Felton said.

“We believe representation matters, and it’s really critical for young people to see teachers from their communities in the classroom,” Felton said.

Jennifer Franco, left, director of marketing admissions at St. Albert the Great Catholic School, talks with Franshon Jackson during a job fair hosted by the Archdiocese of Chicago on Aug. 24, 2022. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)

The Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools, which had more than 200 vacancies in August 2021, started this school year with 58 full-time teacher openings after holding a series of job fairs and seeking the help of professional recruiters, Superintendent Greg Richmond said.

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“We were very worried about it last spring, for the same reason public school districts were worried about it, because for many teachers, it was the worst year of their careers,” Richmond said.

“Instead, we only saw normal levels of departures, so we were very successful,” he said.

“But for a principal, that’s no comfort to them when they still need a middle school math teacher, so there are still challenges, and we will continue to work to find solutions,” Richmond said.

While teacher recruitment remains a top priority at both public and private schools, Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said that unless educators are fairly compensated, even those who are most passionate about teaching will leave the profession.

“I talked to a teacher in southern Illinois the other day who was in tears, because she is pregnant, her salary is $40,000 a year, and her insurance premium for family coverage is $2,000 a month,” Montgomery said.

“Those are conditions that have to change,” he said.

kcullottta@chicagotribune.com

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September 3, 2022 at 08:00AM

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