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New Jersey school staff shortage worsens teaching vacancies

There will be enough people in place when Cherry Hill Public Schools opens the 2022-2023 school year next week.

“We can’t wait [students] to return to the buildings, ”said superintendent Dr. Joe Meloche, who adds that staff will return on Thursday. “You can feel the excitement as we bring people together in groups to be able to welcome children back to our schools.”

Meloche adds that they still struggle to find teachers to teach specialized areas, such as world languages, math and science. School districts across the country, including in New Jersey, are grappling with a shortage of educators.

But school districts are also experiencing vacancies in other areas.

In addition to teachers, Meloche, who is entering his eighth year as district head, said he is also looking for people to fill support positions; cleaners, janitors, teaching assistants and food services.

“We have jobs that are posted. We have interviews ready to go,” he said. “We are definitely looking for good people to come and work with us at Cherry Hill.”

Similar situations are playing out across the state. In Trenton, municipal authorities have announced a shortage of 30 crossing guards. A proposal is before the city council to increase their salary in hopes of attracting candidates for the split-shift positions.

“We are seeing fewer and fewer people in our transport zones at the moment [or] our cafeteria lines or in any of the other positions that really serve our students and our schools,” said Sean Spiller, president of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “We are at a crisis point.”

Spiller said there has been a drop in the number of people applying to work in schools in general, which “stresses the system tremendously”.

“We are entering this school year [and,] once again, we have colleagues who know that we will take them out of their preparation periods [or] asked to miss lunch to cover lessons to try to provide the kids with what they need.

What was once a seasonal cycle for recruiting educators has become year-round, according to Todd Lawrence, owner and co-founder of NJ School Jobs, a job posting website for public, private, parochial and chartered.

“School districts could ramp up their spring recruiting season, plan for retirements, hire these new kids coming out of college, and then they were kind of staffed for the next year, ready to go if they had been an opening that happened over the summer,” he said. “But now it just seems like a constant need to fill vacancies.”

Lawrence said his site has just over 5,000 current job openings for support staff — like secretaries and custodians — through superintendents. Most of the openings are for teaching vacancies. He adds that he has seen “a significant increase” in the number of openings over the past two years, noting the more political atmosphere in education that has coincided with the pandemic.

“Teachers [had] to become the mask police,” Lawrence said, referring to a statewide school mask mandate Governor Phil Murphy enacted for part of the previous year. The recently retired PE teacher told his own story of being confronted by a parent for enforcing the order.

“I was like, ‘I’m not responsible, I didn’t do the mask mandate; I just have to follow it and put it up here inside the school building,’ he said. -he declares.

A trend before the pandemic

Both Lawrence and Spiller say the attack on educators, at least in New Jersey, began more than a decade ago when the then governor. Chris Christie regularly verbally targeted teachers and the NJEA.

“You can’t criticize people politically … for ten years straight and expect people to want to be in this profession,” Lawrence said.

Spiller credited the former governor with being “ahead of the pack in terms of attacking public workers, but especially public education.”

“His challenge there was to try to demean the profession,” he said. “The first thing he did when he took office was tell people, ‘vote against your school board budgets, don’t support your schools, don’t fund the school. “”

New advocacy groups have sprung up in New Jersey and across the country seeking to elect more conservative candidates to school boards, though the elections are technically nonpartisan and generally sleepy races. It’s a consequence of more parents getting involved in board meetings as discussions have turned to masking and vaccines.

“You can’t miss the fact that these meetings are more contentious now,” Spiller said. “You can’t miss the fact that some people get a small number of individuals and call educators by name and say they are harmful or call them slanderous things.”

Fill gaps

Superintendent Meloche, at Cherry Hill, said the pool of teacher candidates has become shallow over the past two years.

“There are fewer students getting into education right now at the college level,” he said.

The number of teacher candidates fell below 3,000 in 2018, according to the New Jersey Policy Perspective, a level not seen in two decades. Additionally, the state’s colleges and universities produce far fewer teachers than the rest of the country.

The state Board of Education recently held a public meeting to consider several proposals to make it easier to become a teacher in the Garden State, including replacing testing requirements with more rigorous proctoring.

There was also an effort in the last session of the legislature to remove teachers from a residency requirement that was passed in 2011 for civil servants.

Lawrence said it would be “easy” to remove the residency requirement for hiring teachers.

“I graduated from high school in Philipsburg, New Jersey, which is in northwest Jersey,” he said, noting that the city “is basically a stone’s throw away. of Easton, Pa. “You cross the river and you can’t hire someone who lives in Easton, right on Front Street…unless they move. What if it was a Spanish teacher, for example.

Overall, Lawrence believes there should be a state-level initiative to make the profession attractive to potential applicants, especially minority applicants.

Spiller says the NJEA is in conversation with people in education to come up with ideas to inspire people to become teachers and stay in the profession.

“I think we hear a lot of creative ideas,” Spiller said. “We have a lot of people talking about ‘hey, can we give bonuses to get people to come'”, for example.

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