TRENTON – A teacher shortage that began before the pandemic has reached “code red” levels in New Jersey and demands action from state officials, educators and activists told a legislative panel Tuesday.

The number of college students who major in education has been in decline, leading to a reduction in newly certified teachers. Retirements are on the increase, sometimes earlier than expected after two years of pandemic-driven stress that is also causing some teachers to quit and pursue a different career.

School leaders told the Joint Committee on the Public Schools they don’t have enough teachers, aides, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, substitute teachers and more. They have a small pool of applicants to fill vacancies – if they can fill them at all.

'Sitting there, idle, with no instruction'

West Windsor-Plainsboro Superintendent of Schools David Aderhold, who is president of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, said he spoke recently with an urban high school principal with 18 current vacancies.

“They do not have substitutes to cover all those classes, and the students are going to an auditorium with one security guard and one substitute and they’re sitting there, idle, with no instruction,” Aderhold said. “The crisis is in front of you. The question is what’s the Legislature, the Department of Ed, the state board and the governor going to do about it. Because the profession has been calling for help long before the pandemic. It’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

New Providence Superintendent of Schools David Miceli said the scarcity of candidates for job openings is affecting the quality of classroom instruction.

“It does not afford me the same opportunity to hire those critical positions,” Miceli said. “It does not afford me to have that dynamic person in front of all our students, and therefore we’re seeing a decrease in their achievement.”

Least-prepared teachers, neediest students

Rhena Jasey-Goodman, induction coordinator at Montclair State University’s Center of Pedagogy, said the pandemic has affected teacher preparation and left new teachers stressed out and struggling, as they were trained virtually without in-person student teaching.

“We now have the least-prepared teachers trying to meet the needs of the neediest population we’ve had in a really long time,” Jasey-Goodman said. “And so, it’s just been a very challenging situation.”

Todd Pipkin, a special education teacher at Eastside High School in Paterson, said new teachers are entering the profession at a time when they have limited supports, with colleagues already using their prep time to cover vacancies in other classrooms.

“Taken together with the interrupted learning, the lack of staff and a future that may see inexperienced staff dealing with the fallout of the pandemic puts the future of our students’ long-term achievement in question,” he said. “To say I am greatly concerned for students and colleagues is an understatement.”

At a two-hour hearing crammed with testimony, to the point that organizers said a second meeting will be needed, there was no shortage of suggestions for how the state could address the issue.

Waive the requirement that teachers live in New Jersey. Revisit changes that increased the college grade point average needed to be certified, as well as use of the expensive edTPA test. Approve certifications for substitutes faster. Work with colleges to promote the profession. Give districts more say over hiring of alternate-route teachers. Forgive student-loan debt. Reduce bureaucracy.

Apprenticeships, higher pay

Heather Moran, the principal at Logan Middle School, said to look to emulate programs in states like Tennessee.

“They have created a program that treats teacher candidates like apprentices, where they work, earn money and complete their programs all at the same time,” Moran said. “I truly fear what will happen to public schools if we do not move in directions like these.”

Oakland Superintendent of Schools Gina Coffaro said the steep decline in newly certified teachers is because of hurdles and concern about pay, not that people aren’t interested in the job.

“Maybe it’s time we look at raising the starting salary, although I think it is at a fair place right now in most districts,” Coffaro said. “Salaries are going up in other industries, and maybe it’s time that conversation took place as well.”

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Aderhold, the West Windsor-Plainsboro superintendent, said New Jersey should give full reciprocity to teachers certified in other states.

“That is a cumbersome process if you’re coming from outside New Jersey. It does not need to be that way, and we are in emergency code red when it comes to having vacancies,” Aderhold said. “We need to get people in the pipeline as quick as possible, so those coming from other states should immediately be issued New Jersey certificates.”

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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