“I don’t know how we can keep going”: DPS employees struggle with staffing shortages

Alysa Hawkins has never taught in a world without a pandemic and her students, a class of first-graders at Force Elementary in Denver, have no memories of a world without one.

The students were online for most of their kindergarten year so they missed out on the socialization school normally provides. They struggle to regulate their emotions. Some are still behind their peers in literacy and other skills.

But to keep kids caught up, the school district wants teachers to accelerate learning and keep teaching grade-level curriculums, and that takes help from school interventionists, social workers, therapists, and psychologists.

Enter the problem faced by schools around the nation: A shortage of staff that’s pulling educators in multiple directions just when a sharp focus on students is needed most. Hawkins said the support she could usually call on is needed for other roles, such as substitute teachers and lunch monitors.

“The biggest thing right now is that the mental health needs and academic needs are so high it’s an unsustainable system on teachers due to the staff shortages,” she said. “I don’t know how we can keep going at this point.”

Colorado schools reopened this fall in a search of normalcy, only to find that the effects of the pandemic remain. They are facing widespread staffing shortages — ranging from substitute teachers to bus drivers — so severe that in a single week DPS moved three schools briefly to online and three other metro area districts  temporarily canceled classes.

In interviews with The Denver Post, four educators and staff members at the state’s largest school district discussed the emotional and physical toll of teaching during what remains the worst public health crisis in a century. Most described a fragile system that is barely keeping schools open, much less meeting the needs of students.

Many staff members are having to perform multiple roles, leaving less time for planning lessons and one-on-one interaction with students, they said.

They spoke of situations where a person was asked to cover a class because the regular teacher was away subbing for a different one.

And janitors are shuffled between schools, meaning not every classroom gets mopped and swept each night and teachers arrive the next morning to find granola crumbs and ants, according to the employees who spoke to The Post.

All the while, DPS employees are facing the persisting threat of the coronavirus. Teachers expressed concern about the rise in COVID-19 cases in their classrooms as K-12 schools are hotspots for outbreaks during what is quickly becoming the state’s worst wave of the pandemic.

Their departments have emergency substitute plans in case teachers are diagnosed with COVID-19. The only problem: The district doesn’t have enough subs.

We are “trying to force a reality of education that does not fit the needs or experiences of our students of the last two years,” said Tim Hernández, a teacher at Denver’s North High School.

“An exodus of teachers”

DPS is facing shortages in multiple departments, but it is the substitute teacher shortage that is really straining staff in school buildings. In response to the stress this has placed on employees, the district closed schools Friday so they could take time for their “health and self-care.”

The state’s COVID-19 surge is leading to a high rate of teacher absences, and the district only has about a third of substitutes normally available to fill in, said DPS spokesman Will Jones.

“The cumulative effects of the pandemic are at the core of what we are dealing with when it comes to ensuring that we have enough staff in our schools,” he said in an email. “It’s not just in school districts like DPS. We are seeing this in many other lines of work.”

The number of teacher absences so far this year — 18,212 —  is just under the 18,785 absences recorded during the same period in the 2019-20 school year, according to data provided by DPS. (The district did not use its substitute system last year.)

The problem is that fewer of these absences are being filled by substitute teachers. Subs only filled 8,590 — or 47% — of the absences recorded so far this year. That’s down from the 12,382 absences filled two years ago, according to the data.

District officials “are not aware of any situations” where the staffing shortages are affecting efforts to bridge learning gaps and mental health needs among students, Jones said.

However, Jones said he is not surprised if school leaders are asking for additional help.

Overall, DPS has 1,360 open positions it is trying to fill. Of those, 700 are for substitutes, 400 for paraprofessionals and 100 classroom teachers, he said.

The teachers who spoke to The Post fear the situation in DPS schools will become worse once the semester ends.

“There is probably going to be an exodus of teachers,” said Gerardo Muñoz, a social studies teacher at The Denver Center for International Studies and 2021 Colorado Teacher of the Year.

Teachers have already left because they feared being exposed to the virus. Others are leaving because they no longer believe it’s possible to support students the way they wanted to, he said.

“There just aren’t enough people”

Everyone is being asked to help fill in when someone is out of work — administrators, teachers, psychologists, and even parents, who school leaders are urging to sign up to substitute.

“There just aren’t enough people in buildings to take care of everything that needs to be taken care of,” Muñoz said.

He has gotten pulled in to cover around four classes this year, including for his school’s smart lab class, which has a 3-D printer and is a maker space for students.

“I’m not an expert in that content,” Muñoz said. “I’m a social studies teacher.”

Raj Wijewardane, a psychologist at Force Elementary, has at times filled in for lunch duty, which takes away the time he has to plan for his time working with children he sees needing more help with their social and emotional learning. He’s particularly noticed younger children needing to relearn the rules and expectations of the classroom. Many are also struggling with the effects of the pandemic, whether it be the loss of a loved one, abuse or a parent who lost their job.

“Having to deal with that and now having to come to school…it’s just a whole lot to deal with,” Wijewardane said.

Hernández, the North High School teacher, said teachers are carrying the weight of making sure their students meet the academic expectations of the district, while also helping them navigate the realities of the pandemic.

“The education system is not working and I think we need to have a conversation on when we are going to accept that,” he said.

Wijewardane, along with the teachers, said they are thankful for the district giving them an extra day off this past week.

“It’s important people have the time to take care of themselves,” he said. “You can’t take time for yourself if you literally don’t have time.”

Hawkins, the first-grade teacher, planned to use the day off to catch up on work and to get her COVID-19 booster shot.

Then she’ll be back to tackle the rest of the semester.

“The students who are struggling the most are being affected,” Hawkins said, adding, “I do worry for those students. Long-term what does that look like?”

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