Teacher and staff absences in the first two weeks of January have leveled off — but school districts are still struggling to find replacements and the statewide teacher shortage continues.
A spike in COVID-19 infections with the omicron variant in early January has abated, bringing back staff who tested positive or into quarantine.
Staffing shortages are improving but “still critical,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, who noted the problem is not limited to teachers.
A spike in infections among school staff in early January led to closures and early layoffs. Adults in schools were much harder hit than students at the time, with infections among staff more than double those of children at the height of the omicron surge. On Jan. 2, when infections peaked, 59 out of 1,000 staff members tested positive, compared to 25 out of 1,000 students, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.
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School administrators seemed cautiously optimistic about a return to normal enrollment, but in Paterson, the state’s third-largest school district with 25,000 students, officials said it was too early to tell. Paterson Schools operated remotely for nearly three weeks in January.
“There is no indication yet that the impact of the omicron variant on district staffing has abated,” said district spokesman Paul Brubaker. “We have to give it time, because we just passed the omicron peak.”
Superintendents of some mid-sized and smaller districts, including North Bergen, Garfield and Wayne, said omicron-related staffing issues appear to have ended, although more than one said they did not want to disrupt the situation. The state also reduced quarantine periods to five days starting January 10, which has helped keep teachers in school, provided they are asymptomatic, Garfield Superintendent Anna Sciacca said. .
Staffing has largely returned to normal in the North Bergen district. Of its 1,000 staff, six to eight vacancies remain vacant among regular staff, but there is a real need for substitute teachers, Superintendent George Solter said.
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“We have a problem with the substitutes. Some districts are paying a lot of money,” Solter said. “I’m not going to be able to compete with that.”
North Bergen pays its replacements $100 per day. Some districts, including Wayne and Hoboken, have used federal emergency relief funds to attract applicants and address shortages of substitute teachers, a use encouraged by the U.S. Department of Education. In January, Wayne temporarily increased his substitute teacher rate to $250 a day from $150 — and he’s since filled all of his vacancies, Superintendent Mark Toback said.
In North Bergen, relief funds have been used for other priorities, Solter said, adding that maintaining high replacement pay rates using short-term federal funds could become an issue once they are. exhausted.
The district, he said, is reorganizing staff to cover rooms. It also has to deal with teacher retirements and the consequences of some teachers leaving to work in neighborhoods closer to home, he said.
Hoboken Superintendent Christine Johnson agreed that hiring replacements was always a challenge. Hoboken raised surrogate rates last year using federal relief funds, but it has brought them back this year. The municipality plans to raise them again.
State lawmakers have passed legislation in the past two years to increase the number of teachers and substitute teachers. Toback said Wayne was hiring a substitute teacher for a position that required specialized experience in advanced placement classes, using a law passed Jan. 10 that allows retired teachers to return to work while continuing to earn a pension.
Lawmakers are also considering a bill to eliminate, for three years, the requirement that public school employees must be New Jersey residents.
Solter said he would like to see more legislation put in place to remove barriers for young people considering a career in teaching, such as waiving or reducing test fees for students preparing to enter programs. undergraduate education and find other ways to establish teaching skills. Shortages have deepened over the past three years as more baby boomers retire from education.
“At one time, there was an overabundance of teachers. I had a stack of apps on my desk,” Solter said. “There would be 10 people for a third-year position. Now I’m having trouble finding one.
The number of certified teachers working in New Jersey public schools in 2019-20 was approximately 98,000. In 2020-21, that number fell to 96,000, although the total 12th grade remained at around 120,000, according to data released by the New Jersey Department of Education.
There has been a decade-long decline in the number of students graduating in education. In New Jersey, the number of graduate applicants with teaching certifications dropped 49% between 2009 and 2018, according to research published in March 2020 by New Jersey Policy Perspective.
Mary Ann Koruth covers education for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about New Jersey schools and their impact on your children, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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