Colorado school staffing shortages persist as 2022-23 academic year starts

Just weeks into the new 2022-23 academic year, schools are facing what is becoming a familiar hurdle: staffing shortages.

School districts in the Denver metro area are struggling to find paraprofessionals to assist teachers in classrooms and enough people to drive school buses. The substitute teacher shortage, which caused some schools to shut down last year, also persists, raising fears about what might happen if there’s another uptick in the transmission of the coronavirus.

The staffing shortages aren’t just in the metro area. Teachers union representatives say they are hearing similar stories across Colorado as some districts also had more teacher openings than is typical this summer.

“These unfilled positions lead to real consequences for students and educators in the building,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association. “We saw it last school year when we saw all the substitute shortages and the stress and the strain that put on the system. That obviously is not a good way to start the school year.”

Schools across the U.S. are facing shortages as they struggle to retain and recruit employees. In Colorado, districts are reporting that their biggest shortages are among support staff, such as bus drivers and paraprofessionals. Districts have ramped up their recruitment efforts in hopes of filling the vacancies by holding job fairs, raising wages and offering bonuses.

The shortages were so severe last year that metro area districts temporarily canceled classes or moved them online. And with fewer substitutes, lunch monitors, and other workers, many employees were asked to perform multiple roles, including covering classes in which they had little to no experience.

Low pay is one of the factors leading to the educator shortage, but how they are treated in the classroom is also playing a role. There is pressure on teachers to catch students up on any learning they might have missed during the pandemic, but they are given less time for planning lessons. They are also facing larger class sizes and are on the front lines of the youth mental health crisis, said Kathy Schultz, dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“Since COVID, the retention rates have been a big issue,” she said.

At Douglas County School District, the shortages are most significant among bus drivers. The district, which was one of the first to resume classes earlier this month, has cut at least two bus routes and has warned families that last-minute cancellations could pop up during the year, said Superintendent Erin Kane.

“You can’t run a route without somebody to drive,” she said, adding, “Hopefully those instances are few and far between but that is a potential impact.”

The district had about 151 bus drivers the week before classes resumed on Aug. 8, meaning it was short roughly 26 drivers. For the district to offer all the routes it ran before the pandemic, it would need a total of 217 bus drivers, Kane said.

As part of its effort to recruit more employees, Douglas County School District is offering bus drivers $2,000 hiring bonuses and $1,000 retention pay, she said.

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, held job fairs across the city Thursday because it is trying to hire more special education paraprofessionals and bus drivers.

As of Thursday, the district had openings for 50 bus drivers, 150 special education paraprofessionals, 22 school nurses and 160 custodians. DPS officials said those numbers could change by the first day of school on Aug. 22.

“There’s a shortage everywhere,” said Lacey Nelson, director of talent acquisition for DPS. “Every industry is impacted right now.”

Competition for bus drivers has increased as not only are other school districts recruiting them but so are companies, such as Amazon, she said.

Teresa Austin interviews for a job as a bus driver for Denver Public Schools during the school district’s job fair at Bruce Randolph School in Denver, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022. “She’s a good candidate,” Toni Ortega, the recruiter, said. “She already has her [commercial driver’s license].” (Photo by Jintak Han/The Denver Post)

The district is hoping that by raising paraprofessionals’ pay from $15.87 to $20 per hour it can recruit more aides for its classrooms. DPS has also said it will increase the minimum wage for all employees to $20 per hour by the 2024-25 school year.

“Paraprofessionals are critical for our teachers,” Nelson said. “(They’re) really a lifeline for our teachers; when we don’t have them it puts extra pressure on our schools.”

At Jeffco Public Schools there are about 100 openings for paraeducators as the roles have become increasingly hard to fill in recent years because of the low pay and high demands of the job, said Hannah Mauro, an organizer with the Jeffco Education Support Professionals Association.

“It becomes an educational and safety issue,” said Lori Williams, a special education paraeducator at Alameda International Jr./Sr. High School. “I’m concerned that kids won’t get the support they need to be successful.” 

Last week was the first week of school for the district, and already the special education department was short a teacher and social worker, Williams said.

She’s worried that shortages will continue to be a problem for schools this year, saying that last year’s understaffing was so bad that educators barely had time to eat lunch or take restroom breaks.

DPS had 145 openings for teachers last week, but the district doesn’t consider that a shortage, Nelson said.

In the weeks leading up to classes starting, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association was still hearing about educators leaving the district — something president Rob Gould said is unusual because teachers normally make such decisions by the end of June.

The Colorado Education Association has heard similar stories about schools across the state doing some last-minute hiring that they haven’t traditionally done.

“It is feeling like there are a lot of schools that have openings that haven’t been filled,” Baca-Oehlert said.

It’s not clear yet how bad the substitute teacher shortage, which strained schools last year, is going to be. Last year, the shortage was so bad that districts were asking parents to become substitute teachers.

But one notable difference from this year compared to last fall is that Colorado’s health department has rolled back its COVID-19 mitigation policies for schools, reducing the instances students and employees have to quarantine.

This change should help keep schools staffed more frequently, Kane said. Douglas County School District has about 200 more substitutes than last year for a total that is just above 1,207, she said.

Jeffco Public Schools had a pool of about 1,200 substitutes in July, but would like to add another 500 to 600 guest teachers, said spokeswoman Kimberly Eloe.

The frequency in which substitute teachers accept jobs vary by person and while districts had pools with hundreds – even 1,000 or more – of subs, they still struggled last year to find someone to fill in when teachers were absent.

“Education has always had staffing shortages, “ said Brooke Williams, president of the Jefferson County Education Association. “I just feel like COVID has exacerbated some of those things.”

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