The American Federation of Teachers convened a new national taskforce Thursday to tackle widespread educator and support staff shortages imperiling the future of public schools and public education. AFT President Randi Weingarten will attend the group’s inaugural meeting, along with more than 20 AFT state and local leaders drawn from local affiliates covering key AFT constituencies around the country.
The AFT Teacher and School Staff Shortage Task Force will examine causes and propose solutions for districts experiencing extreme shortages leading to immense pressure on educators and families that could disrupt recovery from the pandemic. Adding to the chaos, schools have been roiled for months by poisonous national political debates that have turned them into cultural battlefields.
“Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions,” said Weingarten. “Even before COVID, nurses, guidance counselors, teachers, support staff and bus drivers were facing daunting workloads and a lack of respect. And layoffs at the start of the pandemic, the virus’ malaise, political brawling over the teaching of honest history, and the challenge of this school year have made the current situation even worse.”
Many states are suffering: The Virginia Department of Education reported that the number of unfilled teaching positions across Virginia has increased by nearly 62 percent, with school districts reporting nearly 5,000 vacancies. Overall, state and local education jobs are down by more than half a million since the onset of the pandemic in February 2020.
“The damaging part is this is a spiral: A lack of support makes the job harder, which in turn leads to more shortages,” added Weingarten. “Teachers, bus drivers, food service workers, nurses and so many other educators have been heroes during the pandemic, going above and beyond to help their kids, checking in on them day and night while paying for supplies out of their own pockets. The best way to respect and support them is to address the root causes of their stress, including low wages, poor working conditions and divisive political fights.”
The task force will bring together union leaders representing teachers and paraprofessionals and school-related personnel, rank-and-file members, as well as the nation’s top education researchers to review frontline education professions to make recommendations that enhance well-being, improve working conditions, and advance the careers of those who choose this heroic work.
Taskforce co-Chair Carl Williams, president of the Lawndale Federation of Classified Employees and the CFT Council of Classified Employees, said that the shortages have hit support staff especially hard. “Paraprofessionals, custodians and bus drivers are the fabric that holds schools together; and when you see the shortages we’ve seen around the country, that bond and those schools start to fray. Kids rely on their support staff each and every day, but when we’re under-resourced, their learning suffers, adding to the stress of an already stressful job made even more difficult by COVID.”
“Every year, thousands of New York City teachers walk out the door, many of them taking their talents and expertise to other districts and other professions,” said co-Chair Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers. “Developing creative ways to recruit the best candidates, and then keeping these teachers and other personnel in our schools, must be a priority for superintendents and school boards.”
In addition to virtual and in-person meetings of the task force members, the AFT will hold listening sessions with rank-and-file members around the country. The work of the task force begins this month and will conclude with a report released at the AFT’s biennial convention, to be held in Boston in July 2022.
The panel members are:
Nick Archuleta—North Dakota United
Ellen Bernstein—Albuquerque Teachers Federation
Kesler Camese-Jones—Jefferson Federation of Teachers
Zeph Capo—Texas AFT
Nicole Capsello—Syracuse Teachers Association
Kathy Chavez—AFT New Mexico
Melissa Cropper—Ohio Federation of Teachers
Ray Gear—ABC Federation of Teachers
Lisa Gourley—Oregon School Employees Association
Karla Hernandez-Mats—United Teachers of Dade
Deb Howes—ATF-New Hampshire
Jerry Jordan—Philadelphia Federation of Teachers
Adam Marcoux—Nashua Teachers Union
Terrence Martin—Detroit Federation of Teachers
Dan Montgomery—Illinois Federation of Teachers
Michael Mulgrew (co-chair)—United Federation of Teachers
Shari Obrenski—Cleveland Teachers Union
Jason Roberts—Kansas City Federation of Teachers
Lincoln Stocks—East Detroit Federation of Teachers
Jessica Tang—Boston Teachers Union
Nancy Vera—Corpus Christi AFT
Carl Williams—(co-chair) Lawndale Federation of Classified Employees and CFT Council of Classified Employees
Tina Williams—Fairfax County Federation of Teachers