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Arizona Teacher Shortage Getting Worse, COVID-19 Shoulders At Least Some Blame

MARK BRODIE: New data show Arizona's teacher shortage continues and that COVID-19 has made the problem worse. A survey from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association finds in the 145 districts that responded, 28% of teacher positions are still vacant almost a month into the school year. And the survey shows 751 teachers either did not report to work at the beginning of the school year, abandoned their jobs or resigned since the start of the school year. Joining me to talk more about this is Christine Thompson, president and CEO of Expect More Arizona. And Christine, first off, what do you make of these results?

CHRISTINE THOMPSON: Well, you know, it's, it's another year in a row where we can see that the teacher recruitment and retention crisis is really having a massive impact on, on schools. And we expected to see, you know, some changes due to COVID. But, you know, we're, we're still in the midst of a, of a real crisis in the in the teaching profession, I think that bears out by the numbers.

BRODIE: How much blame do you put on COVID for what we've seen?

THOMPSON: Well, I think what's interesting is they actually asked that question — the Arizona Personnel Administrators Association asked those questions. How many were leaving specifically for COVID? And I think when you look at separations for employment, teachers who didn't report to work at the start of the year is doubled. Teachers who resigned regardless of reason has nearly doubled. And I think those things you see in part are due to COVID, but it's also in part due to just the stress of the situation. When you look at how teacher vacancies are being dealt with this year, you have vacancies collapsed with an existing teacher, so their class size is now exceeding the school size limits — that went from 65 last year to 100. If you look at vacancies filled by having teachers not have a planning period, so working up what they're called a six-fifths contract, you went from 453 last year to 668 this year. So not only are our teachers being asked to juggle pandemic teaching virtually, which is a challenge, they're being asked to do more with less prep time — paid prep time — and they're being asked to do it with more kids in their classroom. So it's not just to showing up, but it's also the, the pressures on those teachers. And I'm concerned about how many will stay with the profession.

BRODIE: Well, I'm curious about that, because given the fact that a lot of Arizona schools are just now starting to have in-person instruction, do you think that there's a chance that more teachers, once they see what that looks like and maybe don't like what they see, that more teachers will leave coming up?

THOMPSON: I think there could be that possibility, but I think teachers are so committed to their, to their classrooms and to their students and really have a bond with their communities, I think we're more likely to see it at natural inflection points. So either at semester appropriately or at end of year when their contract ends. So I think we will see some more. And we'll see districts reacting to how they are handling teachers, dealing with health issues and other things. Because I know some districts are trying to balance teachers who can teach virtually who might have health conditions of their own. Others are having everybody go back to classrooms and in-person. So it's a mix depending on district. I think we will see more, but I also think that we're going to see it in the retention numbers next year, too.

BRODIE: So Arizona has obviously been in the midst of giving teachers a pay raise as part of the governor's 20 by 2020 plan. Is it too much of a stretch to say that increased salary is not enough right now to keep teachers in the classroom?

THOMPSON: Well, I think it's a little bit of everything. And we've been championing for this for a significant period of time. When any of us are going to work, it's not just the love of our job that keeps us there, it's not just the pay that keeps us there. It's a mix of all those things. It's compensation packages. It's love of the work. It is the professional development and the support systems that you have in place in your community. So I think all of these things contribute to the crisis that we have in the teacher workforce. So teacher pay has been slowly increasing over the years, but we're still some of the lowest pay in the country for teachers and teachers who are highly educated individuals can also go to other like-professions and get paid more than they do in the teacher profession. And when you think about being asked to do more work with less time to prepare, with less resources to prepare, or even to double down for those teachers who are going to be doing both virtual and in-person with a large load of students — that's like doubling your load of teaching. So I think all of these things are, are putting pressures on this profession in in really pointed ways that we're seeing now with the COVID crises even more.

BRODIE: Now, obviously, even if a teacher leaves their job, the students still show up. And the survey also found that there are a lot of long-term subs and other kinds of folks like that who are filling these classroom positions. What kind of impact is that having on the students who are in those classes?

THOMPSON: Yeah. It's not just long-term subs. It's also people who are emergency-certified. So to get an emergency sub certificate, you don't even have to have a bachelor's degree. So, you know, those emergency certifications are, "We need to get a warm body in the classroom," and right now there are 894.8 vacancies filled by individuals who've received either an emergency teaching cert or an emergency substitute certification. And really what that means is you've got people in front of the classroom who might be well-intentioned but who haven't been trained to be an educator. And I think everyone who has kids — last semester as COVID hit or even this semester as we're trying to juggle family and learning and, you know, virtual learning at home — we're all seeing, you know, how much expertise and skill it takes to really help students succeed. And I'm, I'm deeply concerned that that number continues to grow. Last year, the vacancies filled by those with emergency certs was 742. This year, we've got 150 more. And that is massively problematic for our first students because they're not getting the best education possible.

BRODIE: All right. That is Christine Thompson, president and CEO of the group Expect More Arizona. Christine, as always, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

THOMPSON: Nice talking to you, too. Thanks.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.