More than two dozen educators sounded the alarm about declining interest in teaching and other public school jobs during a Tuesday hearing with New Jersey state lawmakers.
Speakers told the Joint Public Schools Committee that applications have been declining for at least a decade and the nearly two-year coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the downward trend, forcing administrators to scramble to cover vacancies inside and outside classrooms.
Several changes have been suggested, including a bill currently pending in Trenton that would exempt teachers and other school district employees from the state residency requirement for at least the next three years.
Others have talked about improving incentives, such as college loan forgiveness programs or increasing starting salaries.
The impact, all agreed, is felt in the classroom.
Todd Pipkin, a high school special education teacher at Paterson, spoke about his experiences.
“Many students entering ninth grade are below grade level in reading and math. The pandemic has made the situation worse. The impact of the teacher shortage will only widen the student achievement gap over time,” Pipkin told the panel.
Heather Moran, principal of Logan Township Middle School, spoke about her staffing issues, including having only one counselor for the school’s 371 students – a situation she says helped to additional disciplinary offences.
“I was really hoping that this school year would be a return to normal. In many ways, this year has been more difficult than last year,” Moran told the panel during an online-only hearing that lasted more than two hours.
Hamilton School District director of curriculum and instruction Anthony Scotto said extra teachers take time off to care for family members, usually a parent or child, while others choose to resign before qualifying for full retirement and seeking a new career.
“The need is greater than the capacity to be met. Yes, there are times when we can find a candidate, but not every time,” Scotto said.
Scotto offered to speed up the approval process for teaching certificates, including for substitute teachers, and to work with colleges to increase enrollment in their teaching programs.
“With the shortage of staff or the lack of candidates, I’m afraid the scope of what I offer is starting to decline,” Scotto said.
Sharon Krengel, director of policy and outreach at the Education Law Center in Newark, spoke about the importance of improving diversity in attracting and retaining teachers.
“By diversifying the teaching staff, we improve student outcomes,” Krengel said.
David Miceli, the New Providence Superintendent of Schools, also spoke about the struggle with additional vacancies among fewer applicants.
“COVID has certainly exacerbated that,” Miceli said, although the trend started more than a decade ago.
“We’ve seen the various long-standing benefits shrink for the new generation as they come in,” Miceli said, referring to school district employees paying much higher health care costs than there were. ten years old.
The chair of the committee, MP Mila M. Jasey, said the issues raised by the speakers will remain the focus.
“We’ve seen this crisis unfold,” Jasey, D-27th District, said at the meeting.
Assemblyman Benjie E. Wimberly, D-35th District, who works for the Paterson School District Joint Recreation Coordinator, said staffing shortages extend to positions such as security staff and lunch supervisors.
“You take it for granted that these people will be there,” Wemberly said.
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Rob Jennings can be reached at [email protected].