In Union Parish, some bus drivers are having to drive multiple routes to make up for an inadequate number of drivers. Ouachita Parish Schools has started pulling in staff members from the central office to act as substitute teachers. Throughout the state, districts struggle to find enough staff members to keep schools running smoothly, and the problem is only made worse by COVID-19 exposures and infections.
However, the issue of staff shortages in schools was a problem long before the pandemic.
"It's a constant work in progress for us to get the quality of people that we want that are going to be working with our children," said Don Coker, superintendent for Ouachita Parish Schools. "I think teacher shortage is a reality across the entire country, and we certainly are experiencing that right now."
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In the state of Louisiana, fewer people are studying education and more educators are inclined to leave the field. According to the Teachers' Retirement System of Louisiana, the number of retirees and beneficiaries has increased about 20% over the past 10 years. Furthermore, the graduation rate for the Louisiana State University School of Education has dropped since 2015. From the 2015-16 to 2019-20 school years, the graduation rate decreased by 19.9%.
Coker said about 10 years ago, when he was the director of personnel for Ouachita Parish Schools, there was an abundance of teachers, but that is not the case today.
Brent Vidrine, superintendent for Monroe City Schools, said there are many added pressures to teachers that have built up over the last decade. Standardized testing continues to be pushed and methods of judging job performance continue to shift every year along with curriculum. He said teachers get raises every six to eight years, which isn't enough to keep up with health insurance costs that rise annually. Even pension plans are vulnerable to changes.
"All we've done is decimate teachers with more testing and accountability measures," Vidrine said. "Teachers don't know how we're going to do accountability next year; we don't know how accountability is going to be done right now in our state, and yet we are fixing to test kids and give grades and try to constantly put down what great world public good teachers do in our school systems."
These conditions not only wear out current teachers but discourage younger candidates from pursuing a career in education, Vidrine said. This provides a disservice to the field and to entire communities, Vidrine said, because public schools help folks gain an education and move out of poverty.
"We do everything possible to not encourage young people to go in education," Vidrine said. "I've got a daughter who's a young teacher, and I see these young teachers coming in and then what they're doing to their pension system, how they're changing it and doing things to not encourage teachers to come into the field anymore."
Coker said the problem can be helped by reaching out to middle and high school students to pique their interest in an education career. He said that by the time students reach college, it is too late to recruit many students into the field.
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He said help is on the way through residency programs with local universities, such as University of Louisiana Monroe and Louisiana Tech University, where college students studying education get to practice their skills in the classroom and ultimately work their way toward the possibility of a job in the same district.
"We do everything we can to train them and then to hire them once we have invested in them and they have invested in our system," Coker said. "The residency program has been a really good thing for us as far as a recruiting tool."
Vidrine said policy makers should look toward incorporating more stability for teachers instead of constantly changing policies and curriculum. He said just as how stability is important in the home, it is necessary in schools.
"If you look at what we've done with our accountability process the last 10 years, we've never maintained the same thing; we change it all the time," Vidrine said. "It's a moving target for teachers, and so there's no stability. There's no structure."
"When you don't have stability and structure, you don't have progress."
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This article originally appeared on Monroe News-Star: Louisiana teacher shortages long a problem, COVID makes them critical