With four months to go, the finish line was in sight for Jasmine Ver Bust’s junior year at Gainesville High School. To her dismay, two of her teachers unexpectedly left.
“I personally feel like my education was sort of robbed for a few months,” Ver Bust said.
Now a 17-year-old senior, Ver Bust said the loss of two core teachers impacted student success in the Cambridge Program, a pre-university curriculum designed for academic acceleration. Her math teacher transferred to Florida Virtual School for health reasons, and her English teacher moved to New York to work on documentaries, she said.
Around 48 K-12 teacher openings were listed on the Alachua County Public Schools website as of Sunday. As school administrations and state politicians look toward short-term solutions, those in the education system are left to grapple with low salaries among the long-lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
ACPS isn’t alone in its pursuit of hiring more staff — there were around 14,000 vacancies in school districts across Florida leading into the new school year, according to the Florida Education Association.
Nationally, staff shortages aren’t limited to classroom teachers, according to the Florida Education Association. Bus drivers, guidance counselors and other support staff are also affected. Jackie Johnson, the spokesperson for Alachua County Public School, said regardless of vacancies, the county has a strict guideline for classroom sizes.
“Sometimes you have fewer students in a particular school than you expected,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you have more students at a certain school than you expected, and you have to make adjustments accordingly.”
Crystal Tessmann, Alachua County Education Association’s service unit director, said one solution is hiring long-term substitutes stepping into teaching positions.
However, she said the qualifications to be hired as a substitute are different from those needed to be a teacher. In Florida, long-term substitute teachers require a high school diploma, or an equivalent level of education. The substitute teachers are given classroom and policy training, which the school district provides.
Ver Bust experienced this firsthand as her school struggled to fill vacancies.
“My English teacher was a long-term sub, and she was there for about four months and never learned our names,” Ver Bust said. “We were pretty much teaching ourselves in both classes while they were trying to find replacements.”
A 24-year-old college graduate replaced Ver Bust’s math teacher leading up to Cambridge exams. Having recent college graduates fulfill teaching positions is a new pattern, Ver Bust said.
“It’s not looking too good,” Ver Bust said. “There are so many people who have built it from the ground up and know how these tests work.”
The absence of teachers has led schools to combine classrooms, which Tessmann said disrupts the learning of the children without the same level of one-on-one instruction. In a long-term situation the schools make modifications to have enough desks for all students; however, Tessmann said short-term class combining may leave some students without a desk.
Johnson said from the start of school until Labor Day is typically when most classrooms are adjusted based on staff numbers.
“During the first two weeks of school, our district staff are meeting every single day to go over the numbers in every single school [and] every classroom to see what kind of adjustments need to be made,” Johnson said.
Staff shortage effects in public schools may influence overall school grade examinations. At the end of each academic year, public schools in the county are given a letter grade determined by factors including standardized assessment, performance and graduation rates, according to the Florida legislature and the State Board of Education.
In the 2021-2022 school year, Lake Forest Elementary received an F, while six elementary schools earned a D.
To alleviate the issue, Gov. Ron DeSantis approved SB 896, or the “Educator Certification Pathways for Veterans” bill, June 9. The law provides a temporary five-year teaching certificate to military service members. Veterans must have at least four years of service with an honorable or medical discharge.
The temporary teaching certificate also requires at least 60 college credits, a 2.5 GPA, a passing score in a state exam and a background check. The bill went into effect July 1.
The bill hasn’t been effective long enough to determine its impact, Tessmann said.
“Our position definitely is that we infinitely appreciate veterans,” Tessmann said. “But that bill just further devalues the education that teachers have received. There is no overlap at all in being a military veteran and qualifying to be an educator.”
Michaela Allbritton, a UF special education and elementary education graduate student, said staff vacancies in public schools was an impending issue even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Florida ranks 45th in the nation for lowest-paying teaching salaries, according to the Florida Education Association. A long-term lack of support and flexibility in what can be taught, as well as overcrowded classrooms have contributed to staffing shortages, Allbritton said.
“Especially with inflation happening, it’s definitely harder for teachers to have a liveable income,” Allbritton said. “A lot is expected on their plate with test scores. It’s understaffed and underpaid, so more teachers are leaving.”
Allbritton added the job has gotten harder since the impact of COVID-19, as students get accustomed to being in-person again.
As a member of UF’s five-year ProTeach program, which is dedicated to preparing students to become teachers, Allbritton is working alongside first grade teacher Jalea Turner at the K-12 developmental research school, P.K. Yonge.
Despite the drawbacks, Allbritton said she’s willing to go into the teaching profession and make positive change.
“I do love teaching, and I do love kids,” Allbritton said. “I think it’s one of the first jobs I’ve had that doesn't necessarily feel like a job. My motivation is loving kids and wanting to make an influence in their lives. I can’t see myself necessarily doing anything else.”
Contact Sophia Bailly at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_bailly.
Sophia Bailly is a first-year journalism major who covers K-12 education for The Alligator. In her free time she enjoys reading, writing, listening to The Beatles and exploring local coffee shops.