Florida schools scramble to fill vacancies

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.

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

The district also tried 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 said Ms. Michalik.

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,” Ms 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, health care workers and the police to buy houses. The Hometown Heroes Housing Program Funding, which Governor 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 Governor DeSantis this spring and began the job in June, said addressing the teacher shortage in the whole state was “certainly one of my priorities”.

While most school districts started the school year last week, 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. As of January, the Florida Education Association had more than 9,500 faculty and staff positions advertised on school websites.

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 veterinarians 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. .

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

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. ¦