Pikes Peak Area School Districts Fight Teacher Shortages | The gallery

After nearly two years of closings and reopenings, changes to learning platforms, and multiple COVID-19 quarantines, a school day in the Pikes Peak area now feels like near normal.

Most schools are operating in person, and students are moving from class to class — some with face coverings, some without — without worrying about social distancing as the pandemic shows signs of receding.

But in the final quarter of the 2021-22 school year, districts in the Colorado Springs area and across the state are facing a different challenge: a shortage of teachers and staff that has some employees and families worried. for the immediate future.

According to data from the Colorado Department of Education, school districts in the Pikes Peak area have more than 400 teaching vacancies, with Academy District 20, the largest in the region, posting more than 400 teaching vacancies. of 140 vacancies.

Local scarcity is a microcosm of a national problem. Even before the coronavirus upended the teaching profession, school districts across the country reported teachers leaving or retiring in increasing numbers. The COVID-related upheavals have exacerbated the problem.

“The pandemic, of course, was a huge pressure,” said Laura Andujar, a teacher at McAuliffe Elementary School. “I had to restructure my way of teaching and deal with a lot of comings and goings. It was extremely stressful. »

The pandemic-induced staffing shortages are hardly limited to the teaching profession. In what has been dubbed the “Great Quit,” Americans in nearly every industry staged a mass exodus of employees, with 4.4 million people quitting their jobs in February alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. .

Additionally, the number of students considering a career in teaching is steadily declining.

“While we have not seen a significant staffing shortage, we are seeing a much lower number of applications being submitted for vacant positions,” Fountain-Fort Carson District 8 spokeswoman Christy McGee said.

The pandemic, which has added to already stressful work by forcing teachers to instruct their students virtually, is a major reason for the shortage, but teachers say it is far from the only reason.

“The teachers are tired,” said Angelica Givler, an elementary school teacher. “And that’s not the kind of fatigue you can fix with a nap.”

From his perspective, the morale of his fellow teachers is low, Givler said. One of the reasons many teachers are considering quitting – and a possible reason why fewer prospects are applying for jobs – has been a change in public attitudes towards the profession. At the height of the pandemic, teachers were publicly praised for their flexibility and patience.

Now that “critical race theory” has replaced mask mandates as the main concern of some parents, a number of teachers say they are being accused of setting aside traditional classroom teaching in favor of the advancing a political agenda.

“Two years ago people were calling us heroes,” Givler said. “Now we are under attack. People say that we are overpaid and that we indoctrinate students.

Critical race theory, a college-level academic framework not typically taught in K-12 schools, has been the subject of lively discussion at school board meetings across the state. Last August, District 49 approved what is believed to be the state’s first measure banning CRT in classrooms. Several school board candidates have campaigned — and won their respective races — on anti-CRT platforms.

Despite protests to the contrary, many area parents believe CRT is being taught in Pikes Peak area schools under the guise of diversity and equity initiatives.

“That’s absolutely not true,” Givler said. “If we were teaching CRT or something like that, parents could have seen it when we were teaching virtually. It just doesn’t happen.

Relatively low salaries, according to teachers and administrators, are another major reason for the shortage. The average teacher salary in Colorado is around $54,000, compared to a national average of $61,000, according to a report by the Colorado School Finance Project.

In the Pikes Peak area, entry-level teacher salaries range from about $36,000 at the low end (Lewis-Palmer School District 38) to $46,000 at the high end (Fountain-Fort Carson D-8) , according to recent salary scales. The minimum salary for a teacher with a doctorate is approximately $55,000 per year; similarly educated Coloradans earn well over $100,000 a year.

“We’re terribly underpaid,” said Givler, a 13-year-old teacher with a doctorate in elementary education. “District 11 is one of the highest paying districts in this field, and they offer great benefits, but even we don’t get paid based on our education and experience.”

Most districts now offer hiring bonuses for new teachers, as well as retention bonuses for current teachers. The amounts vary from district to district.

In an effort to recruit new teachers, the Colorado Department of Education plans to launch its Teacher Recruitment Readiness and Training Program in the 2022-2023 school year. Officials hope the initiative, the specifics of which are still “being worked out,” will increase the influx of new teachers by reducing the time it takes for students to earn a teaching degree or certificate.

Locally, districts are casting a wider net, increasing the size and frequency of their recruiting efforts. Most districts recruit nationally through in-person and virtual job fairs. FFC-8 has increased local marketing efforts, including using its digital marquees to inform parents and passers-by of employment opportunities.

Several districts are also making efforts to train their own teachers. The Harrison School District 2 Staff-to-Teacher Career Path covers tuition for instructional support staff who wish to become teachers and provides tuition assistance for Harrison graduates returning to teach in the district after obtaining their diploma. Widefield and FFC-8 offer a Teacher Cadet program that educates high school students about the demands and opportunities inherent in the teaching profession.

But some teachers say districts need to focus more on retaining the teachers they have. According to a survey by the National Education Association, more than half of American educators plan to leave the profession, either retiring earlier than expected or quitting altogether.

“My daughter is a freshman in college, and our original plan was for me to retire when she graduates,” said Amy Ver Duft, a high school math teacher at D-20. “I moved it up.”

Andujar predicts that while some educators will seek employment in a different profession, most, like her, will continue teaching for the foreseeable future.

“I plan (to quit) about once a week,” Andujar said. “But even if I think about it, the kids keep me here.”

Contact the author: odell.isaac@gazette.com

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