‘It’s not sustainable’: Pennsylvania educators detail staffing shortages, call for legislative relief

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NOTina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and wife of a teacher, has always been proud to be an educator. But she’s not sure her son Luke should get into the “family business”.

“Even though it breaks my heart to admit this, I have to be honest — I don’t know if I want him to,” she told lawmakers on Tuesday during a Senate Committee on Democratic Policy hearing on the shortage of school staff. “Not unless our teachers finally get the support they need to do their job properly.”

And in just seven minutes of testimonyEsposito-Visgitis described the challenges faced by educators, warning of possible early retirements and diminished interest in the profession resulting from limited resources and burnout.

Teachers “wear more hats than we ever thought possible,” Esposito-Visgitis testified. Educators also serve as counselors, safety aides, therapists, arbitrators, surrogate parents, mediators and mask monitors who lose their planning periods while covering for colleagues in the midst of a crisis. national staffing plan related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“Any of these – retirements, departures and fewer new teachers – are cause for concern. Taken together? We are soon facing the teacher shortage that has plagued other states for several years now,” she warned.

Before the pandemic, there was already a growing shortage of staff, especially among classroom substitutes, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated educational challenges. This has resulted in teachers losing prep time and lunch breaks to cover colleagues and administrators consolidating classrooms due to limited resources.

Adam McCormick, a teacher with the Scranton School District, told lawmakers that “under normal circumstances” he would have taken a professional day to appear before lawmakers. Instead, he asked school administrators to coordinate a schedule, so he could still teach on Tuesdays and not “tax the already tight schedules of my colleagues and students.”

Nor are the shortages confined to the classroom. Ahead of the 2021-22 school year, districts across the country reported a shortage of bus driverswhich has forced some schools to close in-person learning or find other ways to provide daily transportation to and from school.

In December, the Republican-controlled General Assembly attempted to ease the burden by passing legislation, sign by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who gave schools greater flexibility to fill classroom vacancies in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years.

Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, hailed the bill as a step toward solving the shortage by expanding the pool of eligible people, but urged better pay to help recruit and retain replacements.

On Monday, Askey said Pennsylvania saw a 66% decline in Certificates of Education I, the most basic teaching certification, issued to graduates in the state and a 58% drop in certificates issued to graduates planning to work out of state.

“It’s not sustainable,” he said. “And we expect it to continue to get worse.”

The cost of earning a bachelor’s degree coupled with maintaining certification is one of the biggest hurdles for those wanting to enter the teaching profession and stay in the classroom, Askey said. He added that it’s nearly impossible for teachers with high student loan debt to stay in the field, especially those working in low-wage states.

“Also, we have to remember that teachers don’t just get a bachelor’s degree,” he said. “There are fees associated with assessments to get certified, certification fees for [the Pennsylvania Department of Education]the costs of the 24 post-baccalaureate credits required to obtain a teaching certificate II, and finally, the ongoing costs associated with professional development for the rest of their career.

The panelists turned to a Bill drafted by Democratswith a Republican co-sponsor, as a potential solution to help address some of the challenges facing school districts.

The legislation, drafted by Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, would establish high school career and technical education programs designed to provide students with hands-on career path experience and start the training and credentialing process for free.

The bill also expands dual enrollment programs and establishes a Diversification and Workforce Fund, which would provide grants to colleges to increase the diversity of educational programs. Finally, the legislation would require the state Department of Education to collect and publish data, set goals, and coordinate efforts to recruit and retain teachers.

Larisa Shambaugh, director of talent for the Philadelphia School District, also stressed the importance of student loan forgiveness for educators, similar to the recent relief program for nurses and other frontline health workers.

Sen. James Brewster, D-Allegheny, a former teacher, said Republicans in the General Assembly are the biggest challenge to education investment and reform.

“The answer is money,” Brewster said. “And the votes we need [are] across the aisle. »

A day before Tuesday’s hearing, Senate and House Democrats announced a $3.75 billion spending plan for education, staff recruitment and retention, and classroom resources.

The proposal, which lawmakers hope to pass as part of the 2022-23 state budget, would use $2.75 billion from the general fund and $1 billion from unspent U.S. federal bailout funds allocated to Pennsylvania. Last year.

Although Wolf said he would consider the spending proposal when preparing his budget recommendations, there are signs of backtracking from GOP budget officials.

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, said the Democrats’ proposal “far exceeds our current revenue capacity and puts our fiscal position in a deficit position.” billions of dollars when the federal stimulus period is over. ”

He added: “An historic tax increase will be the only way to maintain this commitment following the massive challenges of a global pandemic, record inflation and labor shortages affecting employers across our Commonwealth. .”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact editor John Micek with any questions: [email protected] Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

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