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OPINION

How bad are the staffing shortages at the Boston Public Schools?

The hundreds of key vacancies ahead of reopening next week include 203 teachers and more than 100 bus monitors. Will Boston be ready?

The hundreds of job openings this late in the game are yet another data point that shows that the district is at a crossroads.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The first day of school, Sept. 8, is around the corner and questions are already being raised about the readiness of the Boston Public Schools. Teacher and staff shortages at schools are widespread and certainly not specific to Boston. The question is, how bad are the shortages at BPS?

It depends on who you ask. The BPS job listings website has more than 650 open positions. A BPS spokesperson said there are currently 203 teacher vacancies and a total of 4,500 teachers across the district. At Wednesday’s School Committee meeting, acting Superintendent Drew Echelson and his team gave an update on back-to-school plans and they struck an optimistic note. “By the first day of school, we will be ready with complete staff hires to ensure every student has a qualified educator in their classroom,” said Linda Chen, senior deputy superintendent of academics.

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The hundreds of key vacancies ahead of reopening include 28 safety specialists and more than 100 bus monitors, which are required to ride in buses alongside certain students with disabilities. “We are working to incentivize bus driver and bus monitor positions,” wrote Echelson in a memo to School Committee members. “Please note that several schools are currently carrying the vast majority of teacher vacancies.” But, when asked, BPS wouldn’t disclose which schools. Middle school science teachers comprise many of the vacancies, as well as ESL teachers, according to a BPS spokesperson.

The dynamics of the national teacher shortage are complex and multidimensional, and some factors behind it predate the COVID-19 pandemic, such as a general tendency to focus more on teacher recruitment than on teacher retention, said Devin Morris, the executive director of The Teacher’s Lounge, a Boston-based nonprofit that focuses on diversifying the education workforce across Massachusetts. “I think this is about the moment that we’re in more than it is about BPS or Boston as a city,” said Morris, referring to the widespread labor shortages affecting many industries. Morris said that it was hard for him to say whether BPS is in a state of panic with the current vacancies.

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All the same, the vacancies raise important questions for parents, according to the hosts of the Last Night @ School Committee podcast, Jill Shah and Ross Wilson. “What I would have liked to hear the district say … was, ‘we’re going to make sure that every one of our central office staff or any nonteaching staff who are qualified are going to be in our classrooms, serving as teachers or serving as paraprofessionals,’” said Wilson in the Thursday episode of the podcast. In other words, what is BPS’s plan B?

Among other strategies to get the word out that BPS is hiring, the district is hosting job fairs and partnering with the higher education community with the assistance of Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, according to a BPS spokesperson.

Consider what other places are doing to address the teacher shortages. The Framingham Public Schools partnered with Framingham State University to establish a teacher residency program. Florida is hiring military veterans to teach in the classroom. Meanwhile, the White House announced Wednesday a plan to help schools fill vacancies that includes partnering with recruitment firms and funding for pay increases.

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This school year, the stakes couldn’t be higher for BPS. Newly released national test scores provide stark evidence of the learning setbacks among US schoolchildren due to the pandemic. The reading scores of 9-year-olds fell by the largest margin in three decades, while their math results fell for the first time in the history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ tests, also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Then there’s the discouraging results of a new survey of Boston parents, released Monday, that show that their confidence in BPS has plummeted: Only 29 percent of BPS parents polled are “very satisfied” with the district, which is down from 41 percent a year ago. Only 40 percent of parents said they’d choose a BPS school for their child if given alternative options, such as a Boston charter school, a private school, or another public system outside the city. The series of polls, which looked at trends over time, was conducted by the MassINC Polling Group and sponsored by The Shah Family Foundation.

The hundreds of job openings this late in the game are yet another data point that shows that the district is at a crossroads. It’s possible that BPS fills all the vacancies in less than a week. But parents, many of whom already lack confidence in the district, are right to wonder: What if it can’t find enough science teachers or bus monitors to ride along with students with disabilities?

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Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.