‘This is not sustainable’: Pa. educators detail staffing shortage, urge legislative relief

‘As much as it breaks my heart to admit this, I have to be honest — I don’t know if I want him to do it. Not unless our teachers are finally provided with the support they need to do the job properly,’ Nina Esposito-Visgitis told lawmakers

By: - February 1, 2022 2:37 pm

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

“As much as it breaks my heart to admit this, I have to be honest — I don’t know if I want him to do it,” she told lawmakers Tuesday during a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing on school staff shortages. “Not unless our teachers are finally provided with the support they need to do the job properly.”

And in just seven minutes of testimony, Esposito-Visgitis outlined the challenges facing educators, warning of possible early retirements and less interest in the profession resulting from limited resources and burnout.

Teachers are “wearing more hats than we ever thought possible,” Esposito-Visgitis testified. Educators also serve as counselors, security aides, therapists, referees, surrogate parents, mediators, and mask monitors who are losing their planning periods while covering for their colleagues amid a national staffing crisis folded into the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Any one of these elements — retirements, departures, and fewer new teachers — is a cause for concern. Taken together? We are soon facing the teacher shortages that have plagued other states for a number of years now,” she cautioned.

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

Adam McCormick, a teacher in 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 Tuesday and not “tax the already tight schedules of my colleagues and students.”

Shortages also are not limited to the classroom. Ahead of the 2021-22 school year, districts nationwide reported a bus driver shortage, which forced some schools to shut down in-person learning or find alternative ways to provide transportation to and from school each day.

In December, the Republican-controlled General Assembly tried to alleviate the burden by passing legislationsigned by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, that gave schools added flexibility to fill classroom vacancies during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years.

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

On Monday, Askey testified that Pennsylvania has seen a 66 percent decline in Instructional I certificates, the most basic teaching certification, issued to in-state graduates and a 58 percent decline in certificates issued to graduates planning to work out-of-state.

“This is not sustainable,” he said. “And we anticipate it will continue to get worse.”

The cost of attaining a bachelor’s degree paired with maintaining certification is one of the top barriers for those who want to enter the teaching profession and stay in the classroom, Askey testified. He added that it’s almost impossible for teachers with high student loan debt to remain in the field, especially those working in states with low salaries.

“Moreover, we must remember that teachers do not just get a bachelor’s degree,” he said. “There are fees associated with assessments to achieve certification, certification fees to [the Pennsylvania Department of Education], costs for the 24 post-baccalaureate credits required to get an Instructional II certificate, and finally, the ongoing costs associated with professional development for the rest of their career.”

Panelists looked to a Democrat-authored bill, with one Republican co-sponsor, as a potential solution to help address some of the challenges facing school districts. 

The legislation, authored by Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, would establish high school career and technical education programs designed to provide students with hands-on experience to career pathways and kick-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 diversity in teaching programs. Finally, the legislation would mandate that the state Department of Education collect and publish data, set goals, and coordinate efforts to recruit and retain teachers.

Larisa Shambaugh, chief talent officer for the School District of Philadelphia, also stressed the importance of student loan forgiveness for educators, similar to the recent relief program for nurses and other front-line 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] on the other side of the aisle.”

One 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 the lawmakers hope to pass as part of the 2022-23 state budget, would use $2.75 billion out of the general fund and $1 billion from unspent federal American Rescue Plan funds allocated to Pennsylvania last year.

Although Wolf said he would consider the spending proposal as he prepares his budget recommendations, there are signs of pushback from GOP budget officials.

In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairperson Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, said the Democrats’ proposal “far outstrips our current revenue capacity and places our financial position in a multi-billion dollar deficit when the federal stimulus period is over.”

He added: “A historic tax increase will be the only means to maintain this commitment in the wake of the massive challenges of a global pandemic, record inflation, and labor shortages affecting employers across our commonwealth.”

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Marley Parish
Marley Parish

A Pennsylvania native, Marley Parish covers the Senate for the Capital-Star. She previously reported on government, education and community issues for the Centre Daily Times and has a background in writing, editing and design. A graduate of Allegheny College, Marley served as editor of the campus newspaper, where she also covered everything from student government to college sports.

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