Florida schools scramble to fill vacancies as students return to classrooms

Florida students began returning to classrooms this week amid a shortage of teachers and support staff, with some counties still advertising positions and exploring “creative options” to fill vacancies.

In Bay County, a Panhandle district that has about 26,600 students, school officials were still looking to hire teachers on the eve of the first day of classes.

“We’re still posting about 40 teaching vacancies and about 50 support vacancies, so that’s definitely not where we’d like to be,” district communications director Sharon Michalik told the News Service of Florida on Tuesday. .

The district made progress in the weeks leading up to the school year, Michalik said, in part by hosting a job fair that led to about 130 new hires, including teachers, substitutes and support staff. .

The district has also attempted to take advantage of various resources passed by the state legislature and approved by Governor Ron DeSantis, such as a new $15 minimum wage for school support staff.

But in Bay County, where Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc nearly four years ago, inflated housing prices have put additional pressure on the district’s recruiting efforts.

“I think everyone is probably dealing with the housing crisis to some degree, but it’s particularly acute in Bay County because so much housing was destroyed during Hurricane Michael,” said Michalik said.

Supply chain issues and an increase in the cost of materials caused by the coronavirus pandemic have also slowed the region’s rebuilding process. Housing and rent prices pose a particularly tough battle when it comes to attracting out-of-town applicants to the North District of Florida.

“We’ve seen many people accept positions and then turn them down because although they thought the pay was right, they couldn’t find affordable housing,” Michalik said. “It’s a big challenge because obviously we’re the school system and we can’t get into the housing business.”

Michalik said the district recently held a workshop to help teachers and parents take advantage of a new $100 million state program to help people like teachers, healthcare workers and parents. police to buy houses. The “Hometown Heroes” housing program financing, which DeSantis signed earlier this year, offers borrowers up to $25,000 on first mortgages for down payment and closing cost assistance.

Bay County school officials have also been considering ideas such as asking apartment complexes to offer discounts to educators.

State Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr., who was selected for the job by DeSantis this spring and started the job in June, said the fight against teacher shortages across the State was “definitely one of my priorities” in the role.

“Obviously, not just the state of Florida, but the entire nation and really the world, we are facing a teacher shortage. And that’s only increasing with what we’ve seen in the employment world with COVID,” Diaz said during a panel discussion hosted by the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations last month.

While most school districts began the school year on Wednesday, the challenge of scrambling to hire educators and staff such as bus drivers has persisted since the summer break.

A February report from the state Department of Education said just under 4,500 teaching positions existed in state schools at the end of the previous school year.

The lack of support staff, such as bus drivers and food service workers, also presented a challenge. In January, the Florida Education Association had more than 9,500 teaching and staff positions advertised on school websites.

The Leon County School District, which has about 32,300 students, was also looking to hire employees a day before classes start. The district had 31 teaching positions posted Tuesday and needed about 15 to 20 more bus drivers to be full, district spokesman Chris Petley told the News Service.

More populated areas are also feeling the slump.

Schools in Orange County — which, with more than 205,000 students, are among the 10 largest districts in the nation — were also scrambling to fill vacancies the day before students returned.

“Of our 14,382 teaching staff, we currently have about 100 vacant classes. The district plans to deploy district personnel to fill these vacancies, if needed. These numbers are fluid due to the fact that some applicants may still be going through the hiring process,” Michael Ollendorff, media relations manager for Orange County Schools, told the News Service on Tuesday.

The district was also trying to hire 100 bus drivers in addition to the 700 drivers already employed by the school system.

Ollendorff said new hires will receive a $1,500 signing bonus and, “pending union ratification,” pay rates for bus drivers will start at $16.65, based on experience.

Since 2020, state lawmakers have earmarked about $2 billion to raise teacher salaries. Lawmakers have also tried other approaches, such as a new program designed to tap into the potential of the more than 1.5 million veterans who live in Florida. The Military Veterans Certification Pathway allows veterans who have not earned a bachelor’s degree but have at least 60 college credits to earn a five-year temporary teaching certificate.

While school staffing has been a challenge for some time, Florida Association of District School Superintendents CEO Bill Montford said the problem has gotten “much more difficult this year and the problem a lot bigger” this year. .

“And there are a multitude of reasons for that. You have COVID, and frankly the whole atmosphere of being a classroom teacher today is just harder than it was even a few years ago,” Montford said in an interview.

District-level staff across the state stepped in to help fill teaching vacancies, Montford said.

For example, Montford said he recently spoke to the superintendent of rural Liberty County, who told Montford he was allowed to drive a school bus in case a driver was unavailable.

Meanwhile, among what Michalik called “creative options” Bay County is trying, teachers are being offered extra pay to teach during planning periods.

In a time of heightened school safety, Montford stressed that schools need to be more selective about where they seek help.

“You know, a generation ago you could have a relative who said, ‘Well, I’ll come and volunteer today to help.’ Well, there are so many precautions that we have to take now, that also makes it a bit difficult,” he said.