To Fill Teaching Vacancies, Some Districts Offer Thousands in Signing Bonuses

Some school districts across the U.S. are offering up to $6,000 in signing bonuses in an attempt to fill staffing vacancies amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mount Diablo Unified School District, which serves 28,000 students east of San Francisco, is offering $5,000 signing bonuses for speech pathologists and $1,500 for paraeducators who help students with learning needs, Superintendent Adam Clark said.

San Francisco Unified is offering a similar bonus to fill 100 paraeducator jobs. West Contra Costa County Unified has a $6,000 bonus for teachers, with $2,000 paid after the first month and the rest when the teacher has been at the school for three years.

Districts in other states, including Oklahoma, North Carolina and New Jersey are also offering cash incentives for teachers, particularly teachers entering low-income or low-performing schools.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Biden visits classes
School districts across the nation have been facing severe staffing shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. President Joe Biden, alongside teacher Michelle Taylor (L), speaks with students in a 6th grade science class, during a visit to speak about coronavirus protections in schools at Brookland Middle School in Washington, on September 10, 2021. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Now that schools have welcomed students back to classrooms, they face a new challenge: a shortage of teachers and staff the likes of which some districts say they have never seen.

Public schools have struggled for years with teacher shortages, particularly in math, science, special education and languages. But the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the problem. The stress of teaching in the COVID-19 era has triggered a spike in retirements and resignations. Schools also need to hire staffers like tutors and special aides to make up for learning losses and more teachers to run online school for those not ready to return.

Teacher shortages and difficulties filling openings have been reported in Tennessee, New Jersey and South Dakota, where one district started the school year with 120 teacher vacancies. Across Texas, the main districts in Houston, Waco and elsewhere reported hundreds of teaching vacancies at the start of the year.

Several schools nationwide have had to shut classrooms because of a lack of teachers.

In Michigan, Eastpointe Community Schools abruptly moved its middle school back to remote learning this week because it doesn't have enough teachers. The small district north of Detroit has 43 positions vacant — a quarter of its teaching staff. When several middle school teachers resigned without notice last week, the district shifted to online classes to avoid sending in unqualified substitutes, spokeswoman Caitlyn Kienitz said.

"You don't want just an adult who can pass a background check, you want a teacher in front of your kids," Kienitz said. "This is obviously not ideal, but we're able to make sure they're getting each subject area from a teacher certified to teach it."

The lack of teachers is "really a nationwide issue and definitely a statewide issue," said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of California's State Board of Education.

A school district in California's West Contra Costa County is considering hiring out-of-state math educators to teach online while a substitute monitors students in person.

"This is the most acute shortage of labor we have ever had," associate superintendent Tony Wold said. "We opened this year with 50 — that's five-zero — teaching positions open. That means students are going to 50 classrooms that do not have a permanent teacher."

There are an additional 100 openings for non-credentialed but critical staff like instructional aides — who help English learners and special needs students — custodians, cafeteria workers and others, Wold said.

California's largest district, Los Angeles Unified with 600,000 students, has more than 500 teacher vacancies, a fivefold increase from previous years, spokeswoman Shannon Haber said.

Schools try to fill in with substitutes, but they're in short supply, too. Only about a quarter of the pool of 1,000 qualified substitutes is willing to work in Fresno Unified, said Nikki Henry, a spokeswoman for the central California district with 70,000 students and 12,000 staffers.

At Berkeley High School, a shortage of substitutes means teachers are asked to fill in during their prep periods, leading to exhaustion and burnout typically not felt at the start of a school year.

"We are absolutely strained. This has been an incredibly stressful start to the year," said Hasmig Minassian, a ninth-grade teacher who describes physical and mental exhaustion as she tries to juggle staffing needs and the emotional needs of students who are showing signs of more mental fragility and learning loss.

"It doesn't feel like there are enough adults on these campuses to keep kids really safe. We feel short-staffed in a way we've never felt before," she said. "You know the early videos of nurses crying in their cars? I kind of expect those to come out about teachers."

The California shortages range from dire to less severe in places that planned ahead and beat the competition, but those are the minority, said Darling-Hammond of the board of education.

Money is not the problem. School districts have the funds to hire staff, thanks to billions in federal and state pandemic relief funding.

"We're all competing for a shrinking piece of the pie," said Mike Ghelber, assistant superintendent at the Morongo Unified School District in the Mojave Desert, which has more than 200 openings for special education aides, custodians, cafeteria workers and others. "I don't know if everybody is getting snatched up, or if they don't want to teach in the COVID era, but it's like the well has dried up."

Teaching Shortage
Now that California schools have welcomed students back to in-person learning, they face a new challenge: A shortage of teachers and all other staff, the likes of which some districts say they've never seen. In this August 12, 2021, file photo, a student gets help with his mask from transitional kindergarten teacher Annette Cuccarese during the first day of classes at Tustin Ranch Elementary School in Tustin, California. Paul Bersebach/The Orange County Register via AP, File