After months of distance and hybrid learning, this school year was shaping up to be more normal.
Teachers were optimistic that in-person learning would resume and move away from Zoom or Microsoft Teams. They were ready to see the smiles and hear the laughter in the hallway between classes and come back to something that felt “normal” to them.
But that sense of optimism quickly subsided as staff shortages forced educators to work longer hours, bring home work and miss lunches to replace a sick colleague who was away due to COVID policies. -19.
At the same time, teachers are scrambling to help students catch up academically and socially after nearly two years behind a computer screen.
âThis year has been so trying emotionally, mentally and psychologically,â said Marty Gutierrez, eighth grade math professor at Silver Hills Middle School in Westminster. “This is my hardest year in 27 years of teaching.”
Many teachers, administrators and union officials said this year’s hardship has taken its toll on educators and even led some to quit the profession altogether.
Joel Mollman, an English language development teacher at Hamilton Middle School, said four teachers had resigned since August 23, the first day of Denver public schools.
Robert Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said 54 DPS teachers left in the first three weeks of the school year and an additional 156 teachers were on leave, which could be paternity or maternity, a sick day or vacation.
âWhen you have teachers who simply choose to leave the profession, it’s just not sustainable,â Gould said. “They just don’t have the capacity to keep doing it every day and that creates a hole and you have to backfill and that’s a never-ending problem.”
The shortage of substitute teachers has compounded the problem. There aren’t enough people to cover a teacher who takes sick leave, let alone someone who leaves work. Denver Public Schools have approximately 400 substitutes in their reserve pool. In a typical year, he would have about 1,200, said Lacey Nelson, the district’s director of talent acquisition.
Staff shortages prompted several schools, including George Washington High School, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College, and John H. Amesse Elementary School, to temporarily switch to distance learning earlier this month.
Other districts like Adams School District 14 and Boulder Valley School District recently canceled district-wide classes due to staffing issues.
In schools that continue to offer in-person learning, the shortages have had a huge impact on every teacher as they missed the lunches and planning hours to cover a classroom without a teacher.
“We all forgo at least two or three lunches or schedule times a week, often more just to keep the school running,” Mollman said. âSo we are falling behind on our own responsibilities in our own classroom. “
As cold and flu season began, more educators missed work due to the district’s COVID-19 policies, said Amber Elias, senior operational superintendent of Denver Public Schools.
âWe’ve always wanted people to stay home when they’re sick, but the stakes are higher now than I think before the pandemic,â Elias said. âBefore the pandemic, people came to school with colds very regularly, but now in all these situations where people would have worked before, everyone is really very careful and taking no safety risks. people call and stay home until their symptoms go away. “
The shortage of teachers is not new. It’s an ongoing problem, said Keith Elliott, director of client services for Kelly Services, which provides substitute teachers for districts across the country, including Aurora Public Schools.
Five years ago, Kelly Services only needed to post signage or advertisements asking for alternative educational support and would easily attract people through these methods. But that doesn’t work anymore, Elliott said.
âOver the last few years there just weren’t enough teachers to make this a viable strategy, so we’ve had to be a lot more aggressive in what we do from a marketing standpoint and what we do. we are looking for teachers, âhe said.
The shortage of teachers also affects students. In some cases, the classes were combined and became so numerous that classes had to be held in the cafeteria, Gutierrez said.
“You could have 50 or 60 kids in the cafeteria studying and doing something with the projector up front, while there are 300 kids walking into their ‘classroom’ and lining up for their lunch,” Gutierrez said. “It’s just a little crazy because there could be a science class and a music class sharing the cafeteria at the same time.”
In an effort to get people to replace teachers, many districts have offered salary increases and signing bonuses. DPS has increased her daily pay for subscribers between 4% and 8%, while Kelly is offering a $ 200 bonus for subscribers who work 20 assignments at Aurora Public Schools.
Despite their efforts, most districts are struggling to find people and officials say there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
âHopefully we get to a point where we get beyond that, but at the moment it certainly doesn’t look like it’s going to subside anytime soon,â said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of Colorado. Education Association.
As staff shortages take a toll on morale, teachers also face students who have fallen behind in their studies. Gutierrez said many students have difficulty in his math class because they haven’t been able to retain what they’ve learned from the past two years.
He describes the problem as “an unfinished learning” and said it has hampered the growth of many of his students.
âTrying to meet those needs while trying to move them forward so that they don’t diminish further is a challenge,â he said. “We try to make sure they don’t lack these skills so that they don’t miss the high school curriculum.”
Educators like Gutierrez expected some regression in student skill retention, but not to this extent.
Likewise, teachers believed there would be social and behavioral problems associated with distance learning for almost two years.
Mollman said students were displaying “destructive behavior” at an alarming rate, with more fighting, intimidation and even destruction of property.
âWe knew there would be issues for students who didn’t have strong support at home and were often left alone,â Mollman said. “We didn’t realize the extent of it and it has been a big chunk of this year.”
He added that his school psychologists and social worker who deal with these issues are booked days or even weeks in advance.
In an attempt to alleviate burnout and the impact of shortages, several districts like the DPS have given teachers extra days off to give them the opportunity to focus on their mental health.
DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero announced that the district would have an extra day of Thanksgiving vacation following a recommendation from the US Department of Education and after hearing from teachers, staff, parents and students about the challenges this year has presented.
“I hear teachers say, ‘We love being here, but it feels like it’s March,'” Marrero said at a press conference. “Which means March fatigue is setting in with our teachers because of the heavyweight. The heavyweight comes with everything post-pandemic and responds well beyond the scope of their work.”
Baca-Oehlert applauded the district’s decision to prioritize the health and well-being of its teachers and staff.
âWe need to be aware of the need to meet the mental health needs of not only our students, but our educators,â she said, adding that âwhen you have these feelings (of being exhausted and overwhelmed) , it’s hard to do your best in your workplace. “
Despite the struggles this year, Gutierrez says he still looks forward to having students in his class every day. He thinks that by the next school year things will start to look more “normal”.
âI really hope we get through this, take care of each other and come back to our old normalcy,â he said. “I don’t know if it’s going to happen this year, but I’m hopeful, and I think it’s possible by next year.”