Educators push for long-term solutions for teacher shortage

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Cafeteria workers, librarians and bus drivers could soon be filling in as teachers in the classroom.

Over the holidays Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a Republican-sponsored bill into law that allows non-teaching staff at schools to serve as instructors. Whitmer said the law is meant to serve as a “stop gap” as districts continue dealing with a shortage of teachers and substitute teachers.

Caledonia school leaders say the teaching shortage has been ongoing for several years.

“Right before the Christmas holiday we were really hanging on. Every morning it was a debate of if we were going to have enough staffing to be able to keep the buildings open,” said Caledonia School Superintendent Dedrick Martin.

Educators say the issue has gotten worse over the course of the pandemic, particularly in the last few weeks as cases are once again surging due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

“We have a lot of people that are out ill or they’re quarantining or they’re isolating,” said Mary Bouwense, the president of the Grand Rapids Education Association.

The new law is meant to offer some reprieve for schools dealing with the staffing shortage. Prior to its approval, Michigan laws required substitute teachers have at least 60 credit hours of college or university education. Now they will only have to have a high school diploma to sub.

“With the shortage of staffing all around, I personally don’t know how this would even work because that’s going to leave an opening in the job that the person is supposed to be doing,” said Bouwense. “We know that we are short custodians. We are short bus drivers. We are short food service people.”

District officials say because of the shortages across the board, they’re unsure how impactful the legislation will be.

“We certainly appreciate the operational flexibility that they’re trying to provide in this bill but the challenge of pulling a bus driver away from their route creates a different challenge,” said Martin.

Educators say while their janitors, secretaries and other non-teaching staff likely have great relationships with students, they are not technically qualified to teach and that also is a concern.

“If someone comes in, do they know how to deal with student behavior? Do they know how to read a lesson plan? And then there’s the multiple exposures. We’re concerned about the number of students in a space, the number they’re exposed to during the day,” said Bouwense.

Educators say the real issue is structural. They say there are not enough people going into the field.

“A few years ago, we had 1,000 registered substitute teachers in Kent County. That number is down to 400,” said Kentwood Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston. “The educator shortage didn’t happen overnight. It happened over years and for us to fix it and really sure up the talent pipeline, it’s going to take intentionality over several years. It’s not going to be fixed in one budget or one policy cycle.”

Educators says lawmakers will have to keep pushing for long term solutions like better wages.

“We need to really put a lot of energy, effort and resources behind the next generation of teachers so we don’t have to have measures like this where we have to have these crisis level supports,” said Polston.

Local districts say they’re still working to determine how or if they will implement the new changes.

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