More than 800 teaching and other positions remain vacant across Boston Public Schools two months into the school year, as the district grapples with an acute labor shortage nationwide and expands its workforce.
The vacancies extend into far-ranging corners of BPS, including administrative offices, classrooms, and cafeterias, and encompass about 175 teaching positions.
The staffing shortages are emerging in a fast-paced hiring season that already has resulted in the filling of 2,760 positions, representing an “unprecedented hiring volume,” according to a staffing update the district released this week. The job postings have been issued for more than 1,500 teachers and nearly 800 positions in its central offices.
Superintendent Mary Skipper said she is committed to hiring a workforce of educators who reflect the racial, cultural, and linguistic diversity of its 49,000 students, although the staffing update indicates the diversity of new teachers and guidance counselors hired externally for this year has decreased from the previous year. BPS employs about 11,000 people.
“BPS is committed to hiring the most-qualified teachers possible to educate the next generation of leaders while building a robust BPS community,” she said in a statement. “We’ve already hired more than double the number of teachers [than] we did during this time last school year.”
The vast majority of schools have completed or almost completed their hiring, while officials are working with the remaining schools that are struggling to fill open positions. About two dozen of the teaching vacancies have hires in progress.
The staffing shortages reflect the collision of three big challenges: an increase in turnover, a dramatic expansion of the workforce, and a scarcity of workers that has afflicted school systems nationwide. It is the second consecutive year BPS has encountered significant hiring difficulties.
During the last school year, BPS registered the largest exodus of teachers and guidance counselors in at least five years, with nearly 400 leaving because of retirement, resignation, or termination.
The biggest driver of BPS vacancies appears to be in new positions. BPS has added more than 1,200 teachers, social workers, psychologists, paraprofessionals, and others since the 2019-20 school year. Federal pandemic relief dollars are funding many of them to help students overcome learning loss and emotional harm caused by the public health crisis.
The larger workforce, combined with declining enrollment, means BPS has more educators per student than in the recent past, according to state data, although critical positions still remain empty. During the last school year, the student-teacher ratio was 10.8 to 1.
Other districts around Massachusetts and the nation also have been adding positions or dealing with hikes in staffing turnover, increasingly making districts compete with one another for a limited pool of talent.
“There is a lot of competition and poaching: districts going after people in other districts,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “They are actually calling teachers in other districts to see if they are interested in coming to their district, pointing out they have better pay or other resources.”
The apparent increase in hiring, Scott said, is exacerbating long-existing shortages of special-education teachers, English learner instructors, and specialists such as occupational and behavioral therapists. He said rural districts in Western Massachusetts have been particularly hard hit and also are struggling to hire math and science teachers.
Scott said state education leaders need to work with districts to create initiatives to recruit people into the teaching profession and develop strong training programs, such as apprenticeships.
The state’s efforts have largely focused around relaxing certification rules, such as creating emergency licenses allowing educators to work without a teacher or administrator license. Since June 2020, the state education department has issued more than 19,000 emergency licenses.
“We’re working closely with district leaders to understand where the shortages are most serious and what types of solutions will work best in the short- and long-term,” said Jacqueline Reis, a state education spokesperson.
Like Boston, most of the biggest districts nationwide are spending federal relief dollars on recruitment and retention, contributing to apparent shortages, said Bree Dusseault, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has tracked federal relief funds spending plans in the 100 largest public school districts.
“Districts really seem to have this on their radars as an issue to try to mitigate,” Dusseault said.
The hiring problems have unfolded as many public educators have felt under attack by some parents and community members upset by the prolonged school closures and the approaches that schools are taking to teach about racial discrimination and create inclusive student environments.
“The teacher shortages are not a surprise when you look at the way educators have been treated,” said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, citing the lack of respect for teachers and poor working conditions at times.
Teachers also often don’t have enough time to plan and collaborate with one another to develop new lessons or interventions, Tang said.
The national staffing shortage has attracted the attention of the Biden administration. In March, US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona issued a nationwide call to action, imploring state education commissioners, higher-education leaders, and local schools to tackle teacher shortages by strengthening and expanding job preparation opportunities and adopting measures like loan forgiveness initiatives to entice more workers into the profession.
Some states have taken big steps. California, for instance, adopted a 2021-22 state budget that includes a total of $350 million in state funding for the Teacher Residency Grant Program, and Iowa announced a first-in-the-nation registered apprenticeship grant program to train high school students and teacher aides to become teachers, according to the US Education Department.
Other states have attracted controversy with their efforts, such as Florida’s allowing military veterans and their partners to teach for five years without bachelor degrees.
The vacancies in Boston are raising concerns about potential disparate impacts on the district’s most vulnerable students and widening the inequality in education that exists among the district’s schools. Consequently, BPS should release school-by-school information instead of just districtwide numbers, said Vernée Wilkinson of SchoolFacts Boston, an education and family advocacy organization.
“School communities deserve to have this information in more granular ways,” she said. “Are there more vacancies among schools that are serving majority students of color? Are there less vacancies at exam schools? The numbers exist and they should really be pulled together so we don’t have to guess.”
Wilkinson also expressed concerns over the decline in percentages of teachers and guidance counselors new to BPS this year who are Black, Latino, or Asian. BPS has long been out of compliance with a portion of a federal court desegregation order requiring at least 25 percent of all teaching and guidance counselor positions to be held by Black educators. The current rate is 23 percent, according to BPS.
With limited time to spend federal dollars, Lisa Lazare, executive director for Educators for Excellence Boston, expressed concerns that positions covered by that money eventually may be cut, leading to layoffs that disproportionately affect educators of color, who tend to have less seniority and often work in schools with high-needs students.
“As we fill critical roles, we need to be aware of the fiscal cliff that is coming and put protections in place to protect the progress we have made to diversify the workforce in Boston,” she said.