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Thousands of substitute teachers to close the teacher gap in Baltimore

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Baltimore City Public Schools is battling hundreds of staff vacancies this fall.

Not enough teachers are returning to Maryland classrooms this month as schools across the state, and the nation, struggle to find workers willing to show up. Some school districts plan to recruit thousands of substitutes but there’s concern about how effective temporary teachers will be for students. Lack of school staff and classroom safety issues from larger class sizes are major concerns for teachers in the Baltimore region. More than 5,500 teachers statewide left their jobs in 2022 for various reasons, which has created a staffing crisis, data from the Maryland State Department of Education shows.

Chris Patterson is a teacher at Fort Worthington in Baltimore city, which serves students from elementary through middle school. Patterson said before the coronavirus pandemic her classes had about 35 students on average. Now she worries that she’ll have way more students this school year.

“When there are 45 kids and 50 kids, there's no way one person can accommodate and or assist effectively in that space, '' Patterson said.

When there’s too many children it’s difficult for everyone to get enough attention to learn effectively.

“There's no learning going on and the teacher is not doing their job. They are now just maintaining the space and that’s my fear,” she said.

About 13.3% of teachers across the state did not return to the same school between fall 2020 and fall 2021. The teacher attrition rate for Baltimore City Public Schools was 12% last year. The cost of turnover ranges between $9,000 and $21,000 per teacher for hiring and training, the state education department estimated.

The school district is working with principals across the system to prioritize positions that are considered critical to the academic success of students, said Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff for Baltimore City Public Schools.

While the pandemic has exacerbated the teacher shortage, the additional roles developed through funding from the Kirwan Commission has contributed to vacancies, Perkins-Cohen said.

She said the funding will help, “provide the kinds of programming our young people should have had for years, so more arts programming, wider range of science, math, history programming.”

However, “those resources came at a time when there was a statewide and national shortage of teachers,” she said.

There are 1,300 vacancies across the school district with more than 150 schools. Since a recent hiring spree, about half of those jobs have been filled. But substitute teachers and alternative staff through partnerships with community programs are pitching in. Some employees who work in the district’s central office might be sent into the classrooms, she said.

Creating a strong pool of substitute teachers is also Baltimore County Public Schools’ plan to deal with the shortage. The teacher attrition rate in Baltimore County was 11% last year. The county hired Kelly Education, a substitute teacher staffing agency, to help with recruitment and hiring. They are working to recruit over a thousand substitute teachers.

Nicola Soares, president of Kelly Education said the “massive exodus of full time professional teachers,” has created a surge in demand for subs.

And that’s not a new strategy, though the situation is a bit more dire.

“Substitutes have always been the go to for school systems when there are openings, you need somebody in the room with those students, '' said Cindy Sexton, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.

She added that while substitute teachers are trained before starting, being well-versed in curriculum is a challenge, “ it's not the same as having a certified educator in that room.”

Soares said the teacher shortage and demand for subs is a systemic issue. Substitute teachers are a solution, but not the answer she added.

Both teachers said vacancies will be an issue until the profession can recruit and retain teachers in large numbers.

Historically teachers are paid less than people in other fields with similar levels of education and experience. Between virtual learning and influx of staff exiting the field, the pandemic increased workload for teachers across the nation. Teachers in the Baltimore region, salaries roughly fall between $49,000 and $60,000 and vary based on degree level. Sexton agrees that wage increases can help with retainment, but expressed that workload plays a role because it’s currently unsustainable.

Teachers with less than three years of experience are most likely to quit, the state department of education data shows. Some teachers are dropping out of the education field entirely while others are stepping into roles that are education-related but not in schools. The dearth of teachers might show administrators, officials and parents alike the importance of having qualified individuals in the classroom.

“Now that teachers are aware of their value and the true power they hold, they are stepping out on faith and just taking a chance at something new because what we're doing is not working,” Patterson, the Baltimore city teacher said.

Zshekinah Collier is WYPR’s 2022-2023 Report for America Corps Member, where she covers Education.
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