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Florida's Sharp Teacher Vacancy Increase Tied To Pandemic, Pay

 Principal Vernicka Rolle-Murray leads students to classrooms after breakfast, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, during the first day of school at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Principal Vernicka Rolle-Murray leads students to classrooms after breakfast, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, during the first day of school at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Fla.

Schools across Florida are facing a spike in staff shortages as K-12 students return to the classroom amid a recent surge in coronavirus infections.

At the start of August, thousands of teaching positions across the state were unfilled. And local school districts were in need of bus drivers, food service staff, guidance counselors, school nurses and classroom aides.

Before every school year, the state's teachers' union, the Florida Education Association, surveys local school district job vacancies. They compile the data into a spreadsheet that captures a snapshot of open full-time certified instructor positions and other school support jobs.

The union has tracked a roughly 67% increase in vacancies statewide since this time last year. “That’s huge,” said Florida Education Association Vice President Carole Gauronskas.

The pandemic is largely to blame for the sharp rise in openings, she said. “Many have taken early retirement. For those who’ve had underlying health issues that cannot be accommodated, they left the classroom setting for a safer environment.”

The data show nearly 5,000 teacher vacancies and about 3,700 school support staff openings across the state on Aug. 2.


In Bay County, there were 26 open full-time certified teacher positions about a week before school started. School district officials reported they had to combine some classrooms. They say with the help of classroom aides teachers were able to continue instruction smoothly on the first day.

“That’s doable in Bay,” Gauronskas said before listing other districts with far greater teacher shortages, including Broward with 531 vacancies, Hillsborough with 311 and Lee with 210. “There are some really big gaps right now,” she said.

Students are the ones who stand to lose the most when there aren't enough teachers, she said. “When you’ve got to cram a bunch of children into a classroom for a lack of teachers that’s certainly going to hurt a child’s performance.”

The state’s average educator salary still ranks 49th in the nation — $10,000 below the national average — despite a recent bump in starting teacher pay, according to the National Education Association’s annual report from 2019 - 2020 school year.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has touted his success in getting the legislature to approve his proposal to spend federal coronavirus aid on $1,000 checks to teachers and principals. DeSantis on Wednesday handed out bonus checks to teachers in two school districts, including Bay District Schools in Panama City.

“This is a small token for us to just say thank you, we do appreciate what you guys are doing and what you’ve been able to accomplish,” DeSantis said. He was referring to the fact that the county’s school district hasn’t seen a normal year since before Hurricane Michael hit on Oct. 10, 2018.

Not all school employees received a bonus check from the governor. “There are bus drivers and cafeteria staff that did not miss a day during the pandemic, we may have closed everything down,” said FEA VP Carole Gauronskas. “But they were delivering food on their buses and fixing food — breakfast and lunch — for children across the state. They never missed a day.”

Still they were left out of receiving the state bonuses, which went to teachers, principals and first responders. Though she says she’s grateful some educators received bonuses, she prefers pay raises over bonuses. “I want that in a paycheck regularly. I want to see that money so that it goes toward retirement so that it goes toward someone’s pay period every week.”

Leon County Schools has seen a nearly 60% increase in vacancies since last year— with 42 teacher vacancies and 25 open school support staff positions on Aug. 2, the FEA’s survey results captured. Superintendent Rocky Hanna says he witnessed the effects of the employee shortage during an early morning visit to the district’s bus compound on the first day of school.

“The compound manager was having to board a bus as a bus aide to help pick up special needs children,” Hanna said. “The situation is dire, and we are actively recruiting bus drivers, bus assistants, food service workers and teachers.”

While the pandemic has contributed to the current shortage, the increase in vacancies also follows a years-long trend, Hanna said. Over the years, he’s seen a declining number of people interested in becoming a teacher.

“We’d have hiring fairs at the civic center. And you’d roll up the elephant doors, and hundreds of young aspiring teachers would come through those doors, eager and excited about becoming a teacher in our public school system,” Hanna said. “And now you roll those doors and there’s very, very few.”

Hanna says the district — like many others across the state — has struggled to hire enough substitute teachers. That’s a bigger problem during the pandemic because teachers need substitutes when quarantining at home.

If no substitute teacher is available, the classroom teacher aide or paraprofessional would take over instruction and receive overtime pay for acting as a substitute, Hanna said.

“If that doesn’t work, as a last resort we would split the class to other teachers to cover while that teacher is out," he said. "We try to do that only as a last resort because it's disruptive to the class that's being split and to the classes that those kids are entering."

Lynn Hatter contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Valerie Crowder is a freelance reporter based in Panama City, Florida. Before moving to Florida, she covered politics and education for Public Radio East in New Bern, North Carolina. While at PRE, she was also a fill-in host during All Things Considered. She got her start in public radio at WAER-FM in Syracuse, New York, where she was a part-time reporter, assistant producer and host. She has a B.A. in newspaper online journalism and political science from Syracuse University. When she’s not reporting the news, she enjoys reading classic fiction and thrillers, hiking with members of the Florida Trail Association and doing yoga.
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