(BCN) — Amid the ongoing national teacher shortage, West Contra Costa Unified started its second week of the 2023-24 school year with 80 teacher vacancies, which may lead to shuffling teachers during the first few weeks of school.
According to the district’s spokesperson, Elizabeth Sanders, when the school year started on Aug. 15, the district had 99 unfilled teacher vacancies out of about 1,500 certificated positions. Certificated staff are largely teachers, but include counselors, librarians and instructional coaches.
Last year, at least a half-dozen of the district’s teachers were reassigned to different schools or classes during the fall semester, and some of the reassignments didn’t occur until more than a month into the school year. At the time, teachers said making the changes so late was disruptive to the classrooms and undermined the work they had done to gain their students’ trust and build connections.
John Zabala, president of the United Teachers of Richmond, the district’s teachers union, said he fears shuffling may occur this year as well, given the number of vacancies.
“We have concerns about working conditions for teachers and learning conditions for students,” Zabala said. “We know this problem is greater than just West Contra Costa Unified. Ultimately, we’re going to need legislative changes in Sacramento to address these shortages.”
Sanders said the district has ensured coverage for all vacancies by reassigning instructional coaches and other teachers on special assignment to cover temporarily while new teachers are hired and processed. The district is also using substitute teachers and retired educators.
“We appreciate these instructional leaders for their work to ensure that all students start the year with highly qualified teachers,” Sanders said.
The 30,000-student district in the East Bay cities of Richmond, El Cerrito, San Pablo, Pinole, Hercules and El Sobrante is working to hire and onboard more teachers to ensure that the fill-ins are only temporary, Sanders said.
Zabala said district officials have been proactive in trying to shuffle their classrooms before the school year starts and have been communicating with the union about its progress. Hundreds of West Contra Costa Unified teachers have resigned since the pandemic, Zabala said.
At the end of the 2021-22 school year, more than 200 of the district’s teachers resigned, he said, and more than 100 resigned at the end of the 2022-23 school year. Studies show that, across the nation, teachers are feeling burnt out and leaving the profession in large numbers.
The situation has increased the competition to recruit from the small pool of qualified teachers between districts in a region, Zabala said. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that neighboring Oakland Unified started its school year on Aug. 7 short 60 teachers out of 2,300, and that San Francisco was still looking for more than 140 teachers about two weeks before its first day of school last Wednesday.
“Districts are essentially poaching from one another high-quality candidates,” Zabala said.
The problem could worsen in the coming years if the district needs to lay off employees for budget reasons after years of declining enrollment and increased pay for teachers and staff. The fiscal solvency plan laid out in June by Robert McEntire, associate superintendent of business services for West Contra Costa Unified, calls for a reduction of 145 full-time employees, including 54 teachers, through attrition or layoffs before the 2024-25 school year, and more the following year.
West Contra Costa Unified has also struggled to staff special education paraprofessionals this year — an issue districts throughout the country are grappling with. The district had more than 200 such vacancies in mid-July and contracted with outside staffing agency ProCare Therapy to fill the vacancies.
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