‘The worst I’ve ever seen it.’ Centre County schools face staff shortages for upcoming school year

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With school starting in a week, Centre County districts are still battling a shortage of teachers, substitutes, bus drivers and other key positions.

Around the country, teachers, bus drivers and support staff have been in high demand with no sign of letting up soon. Centre County districts reported hiring problems related to the shortage last school year but have had little luck with hiring in the months since.

Joseph Clapper, interim superintendent of Bald Eagle Area School District, said the staffing shortage is unprecedented.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it,” Clapper said. “I’ve been doing this school superintendent business for a long time and this is the worst that I have seen in all my years.”

Rural districts tend to lose teachers to higher-paying or larger districts. Specialized positions or high school teachers can be especially difficult to find.

Brian Griffith, superintendent of Penns Valley Area School District, said the district has been looking for language and secondary math teachers for months. It’s difficult to find qualified applicants for upper-level science and math courses, he said.

“For really any secondary teacher, we’re just not getting any applicants,” Griffith said.

Part of the shortage comes as applicants qualified for secondary positions move to the private sector rather than choosing to teach, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Bellefonte Area School District Superintendent Tammie Burnaford said that substitutes and support staff are “critically low.”

“Our main shortages are within the support staff (paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, custodians, etc.),” Burnaford wrote in an email to the Centre Daily Times. “The custodial and cafeteria staff shortages are of particular concern.“

An impact on students

At an Aug. 8 board meeting, the State College Area School District board of directors voted to remove Cisco classes from the high school curriculum after being unable to find a certified teacher since July 2021. The courses allowed students who completed them to graduate with a certification in computer networking from Cisco. Fifty-three students were enrolled in the computer courses at some level, leaving them only two weeks to adjust their schedules.

Interim Superintendent Curtis Johnson said the district does plan to introduce other non-Cisco computer courses in the future but finding a certified instructor has been difficult. Cisco-certified network professionals can make upward of $100,000 a year, nearly double the starting salary for entry-level SCASD teachers.

With the current shortage, districts are also holding their teachers. Johnson said several future SCASD teachers are being held by their previous districts for a two-month period so a replacement can be held. Until the teachers are released, the district has to rely on building substitutes to fill those positions, he said.

Although SCASD has enough substitutes to compensate for the held teachers, the process of holding teachers can create strain for districts, especially as substitute numbers dwindle as the year goes on.

“Right now, there’s a fair amount of substitutes in the pool so to speak, but that can dramatically change,” Clapper said. “As soon as substitute teachers become employed permanently, then that diminishes the number of substitutes in the substitute teacher pool.”

Despite many districts struggling to fill positions, Philipsburg-Osceola School District has filled all teaching positions for the 2022-23 school year. Superintendent Greg Paladina attributes it to starting the hiring process very early and heavily advertising open positions.

But P-O is always hiring support staff such as custodians and substitute teachers, and applicants for those positions can be few and far between.

“We can have two, three days of interviews, and only 50% of the applicants show up if we’re lucky,” Paladina said.

There’s also a dire need for workers in local districts to ensure students get to and from school safely.

In a letter sent out to the community on Aug. 4, SCASD asked for crossing guards, stating that there were no pending applications for open positions. Crossing guards are employed by the borough or township, not the district, but are vital positions for school operations.

Johnson said the high school uses security to help with traffic during arrival and dismissal but was unsure of what elementary and middle schools would do without crossing guards.

The letter also stated that SCASD is short on bus drivers for the upcoming year, with more openings than applicants. BEA and Penns Valley also said their bus contractors were still looking to hire more drivers.

In a Facebook post on the BEA Athletics page, district athletic director Doug Dyke implored parents and others interested in helping out with transportation for extracurricular activities to get in touch.

“Some school districts have already informed parents that unless some of them step up and get their CDL there will not be district supplied transportation for some of their extra curricular activities,” he wrote. “We are not at that point but it is getting very close.”

BASD’s board voted Tuesday to pay bus contractors an additional $10 per route per day.

Looking ahead

As Centre County districts continue to work on filling vacancies, administrators know long-term solutions are needed at the state and federal level.

“There’s going to have to be something done at the higher education level to entice more people, more students to go into education,” Clapper said. “And there has to be a better path for people to who already have a degree to be able to serve as substitute teachers.”

In July, the Pennsylvania Department of Education released a three-year plan to bring in more teachers. The aim is to enroll more students in education programs and make it easier for substitutes to receive credentials. The PDE hopes the plan will help draw new people into education and reduce teacher turnover. But until then, districts will have to find ways to entice applicants or work around the shortage.