Gulf District Schools administrators met in the hours after school ended on Thursday, Jan. 13 to weigh their options.
There were more than 15 teachers and staff members out sick at Port St. Joe Elementary School and at least that many at the district’s other three institutions. Did the schools have enough staff to operate as normal that Friday?
The administrators decided they did not.
“Some time after 4 o’clock, the four principals and my immediate district staff and I were on the phone, and by the time we got off, I said, ‘Guys, what do you want to do?’” Gulf District Schools Superintendent Jim Norton told the Star that evening. “And they said, ‘Please, we’d be better off if we just closed and had a four day weekend,'”
“I said, ‘Well, that’s what we’re gonna do.'”
Norton said that students were already off on Monday, Jan. 17 in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The extra-long weekend, he hoped, would allow the district’s staff some much needed time to heal and recuperate.
Across the country, COVID-19 related absences are exacerbating a shortage of teachers and school staff that persisted long before the pandemic began.
With numbers diminished at Gulf County, administrators are having to decide whether it is best to keep students in the classroom or use the “wellness days” they built into the schools’ 2021-22 calendar, anticipating these difficulties.
“We have a lot of staffing shortages across the board at both ends of the county,” Norton said on Jan. 13. “It makes sense to just call it a wellness day. We build these hours and days into our school calendar, and we still have the ability to do it again if we need to during the remainder of the school year.”
Ahead of this school year, the Florida Education Association reported more than 5,000 posted job openings within the state’s public schools, with an increasing number of educators leaving the field and fewer entering.
Low salary and an increasing perception of teaching as an undesirable job were well documented for keeping young people from pursuing careers in education many years before the pandemic began. Florida’s average teaching salary is 49th in the nation overall.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, 40 percent of the state’s teachers left the classroom within their first five years teaching, a rate that is 15 to 20 percent higher than the national average, depending on the year.
These shortages are exacerbated by the coronavirus, which can take staff members out of the classroom for weeks at a time.
With a dwindling number of teachers and increasing numbers calling in sick, school districts are struggling to fill vacancies and find substitutes quickly enough to keep students from falling further behind in their coursework.
“The main thing right now is staffing, and that’s throughout the state of Florida. Really, it’s throughout this country,” said School Board Member Marvin Davis about the board’s priorities on Jan. 11. “Bus drivers, we still need teachers.”
In a school board meeting later that day, members expressed that lacking teachers and substitutes were putting a strain on school resources.
Across the state, substitute teachers, many of whom are uninsured, have been reluctant to accept offers to cover for sick school staff, fearing that they themselves will get sick.
The board approved the hire of three new teachers in the districts during that same meeting, and Norton said there was no doubt that the new hires would help, but he was careful to say that the district’s need has not necessarily been filled.
As students return to campus this week and staff numbers are able to begin to rebound, Norton expressed that the district is always on the lookout for high quality new hires.
“It’s a constant deal. Nationwide and statewide there’s a shortage. Especially with our area. It’s not cheap. It’s not really an affordable lifestyle for a young person straight out of college,” he said. “So we had to kind of get creative. We feel like we have a wonderful staff, but we;re always willing and interested to talk to good, qualified candidates who might be looking for a job because we know we’re probably going to have one coming open.”