Lysa Stewart is on the hunt for employees. The supervisor of Colfax Elementary’s before and after care program said finding people to hire is taking a lot longer than usual. “I’ve seen waves,” Stewart said. “Obviously in 28 years of doing this, I’ve seen waves. But I haven’t seen one like this. This is — this is new.”
Denver Public Schools is experiencing a shortage of education workers that some in the industry feel could exacerbate burnout. For certain positions, such as bus drivers, custodians and substitute teachers, the shortage existed before the pandemic, DPS Director of Talent Acquisition Lacey Nelson said. “With the pandemic and people going back to work, competition’s at its highest,” Nelson told The Denver North Star. “So candidates have so many places to choose from that those positions that are already difficult to fill are even more difficult these days.”
DPS is not alone. At its job fair on Oct. 23, Denver International Airport expected 5,000 candidates but only drew about 100. A week earlier, The Wall Street Journal reported 4.3 million workers were still missing from the workforce.
Although the numbers change week to week, at the end of October Nelson estimated the district had openings for approximately 100 teachers, 180 paraprofessionals, 75 food service workers, 50 to 60 custodians — and the list went on.
Stewart has two employment openings at her before and after care program. To maintain the required adult-student ratio of 1 to 15 children, she needs a total of five staff members to work with the students currently enrolled — more if they want to serve students on the program’s waitlist. But it’s been difficult to find workers, said Stewart, who lost four staff members right before the school year started. Positions in the program are part-time, and two of her former employees found full-time time work elsewhere, she said. Two others cited the vaccine mandate as part of the reason why they weren’t returning.
Starting the year short-handed meant Stewart has not been able to give her new employees the in-depth training and support she’d like to. She said she worries it will lead to a cycle of overwhelming resignations and understaffing. I just feel like it’s a slippery slope,” Stewart said. “I’m going to lose more people because they’re going to get burned out … You have to start all over again. It’s very concerning.”
In February, the Colorado Education Association announced that according to a survey of its members, 40% of Colorado’s educators were considering leaving the profession in the near future.
Yet, Nelson said they’re not seeing that at DPS. The district reported classroom teacher turnover steady at 13% for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. For classroom paraprofessionals, the turnover rate was 29% last year and 28% the year before that.
“We have your standard retirements every year. We are having more people resign who didn’t want to be vaccinated,” Nelson said. “So we, of course, we’re going to have turnover. “We’re still seeing some of the best numbers that we’ve seen.”
A public health order from the city required all school employees to be vaccinated by Sept. 30. The district’s progressive discipline process for non-compliant employees began Oct. 4 and could result in termination effective Jan. 2. Although it’s early in the process, Nelson said the district’s vaccination numbers are “pretty high” so she doesn’t expect the vaccine mandate to play a large role in turnover.
However, during the first six weeks of this school year, 55 educators left the district and 145 were on some form of leave, according to Rob Gould, president of Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “That’s pretty sobering,” Gould said. Not a day goes by that the teacher’s union or its partner organization, Colorado Education Association, doesn’t get a message from an educator experiencing burnout while struggling under increased classroom sizes and increased workloads, he said. While some are leaving the industry altogether, Gould’s heard that some are being recruited to other districts.
The average teacher salary at DPS was $61,890 last year, according to the Colorado Department of Education. It’s not the lowest in the area — Sheridan School District’s average was $57,107. But it’s not the highest either with Littleton Public Schools and Cherry Creek School District averaging $68,686 and $76,050 respectively.
In the short term, Gould said we can take the pressure off of educators by making sure students’ needs for food, shelter and mental health are met. Then students can come to school ready to learn and do well in the classroom. But in the long term? Colorado and the nation need to invest in education, he said.
Anna DeWitt, a teacher-turned-bartender, echoed Gould’s statements. Of her 11-year career in education, she spent nine years teaching French at North High School but then left the profession this summer.
She found the district’s regular assessment of her and other teachers demoralizing and too focused on educators’ deficits. In addition, it felt debilitating to be expected to fix society’s problems in the classroom, she said.
In her new field, she works less and makes more money, she said.
“I’m infuriated (that) my value as a woman is equal to giving people beer as to giving people education in a second language,” said DeWitt, who believes teachers should be paid “a truly competitive salary.” She worries about a world where education is so poorly valued.
Nelson said it can be a challenge for the district to compete against the private sector even though it pays at market or even above market rates for some of its positions.
“Schools aren’t heavily funded,” Nelson said. “And so we can only go so high.”