Staffing woes plague special education, shorting students and driving up costs

Ryleigh Rattanakoun stopped attending Springfield schools in fifth grade and has since struggled to find a permanent school that works with his needs. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Flores

Working in special education was never easy, advocates and administrators say, but two years into the pandemic, they’re suffering from serious staffing shortages. 

Despite an influx of American Rescue Plan money and other one-time Covid-related dollars, schools are struggling to find and keep special ed teachers and staff.

“When we started coming back in person, suddenly, there were not enough service providers,” said Karen Price, director of family support for education at Vermont Family Network, a nonprofit that helps families with children with disabilities. 

At the onset of the pandemic, students who received physical and occupational therapy, or who benefited particularly from hands-on learning, often fell behind as all services went remote. Yet a return to in-person education has not been the fix many anticipated.

According to Price, students with disabilities have experienced shortened school days because schools cannot fill the positions needed for an entire day. In other instances, Price continued, staff members who might lack typical training have been forced to fill specialist roles. In the most dire instances, some students receive no services at all. 

In Springfield, an Agency of Education investigation found that the district violated the law by failing to provide a fair and appropriate education to a student with multiple disabilities. 

School administrators cited staffing shortages as a primary cause. 

“COVID has led to a shrinking of external specialized programs that will take students with specific needs,” said Zach McLaughlin, Springfield’s superintendent. It “has limited the availability of the district to hire staff with the type of specialized skills necessary to provide some types of in-house programming.”

Students with severe disabilities require specialists, and the Agency of Education noted that Springfield lacked the “highly trained staff” required to meet the student’s individual needs. Although schools have experienced staff-wide shortages, specialists have been particularly difficult to recruit, administrators told VTDigger. 

The Springfield example came to light following an administrative complaint. Advocates recommend that parents try to resolve issues with school officials before requesting state intervention, but unfortunately, those initial conversations don’t always yield change, especially recently, according to Price, the advocate with Vermont Family Network. 

Previously, Price said, much of her work involved providing families with information about special ed and answering relatively simple questions. But since the pandemic, the average call has become more complex, and often the relationship between the family and school administrators has already soured by the time Vermont Family Network gets involved.

“When you have a lack of service providers, some of the schools have been saying, ‘Well, we just have to think more creatively,’” Price said. “Well, creative thinking itself requires more wealth, more thinking, more brain power, more problem-solving. All of that, again, is time-consuming.”

With summer approaching, many advocates have turned their attention to extended school year programs — educational services that districts provide during non-school months for students with disabilities. 

Rachel Seelig, director of Vermont Legal Aid’s Disability Law Project, said she has seen districts undervalue extended school year programs in the past, a problem the pandemic has exacerbated.

“We have gotten some calls from families who are struggling to get extended school year (services) for their students because staffing is inadequate,” Seelig said — an observation Price echoed.

“I would hope that districts that are struggling with that might come together to be able to provide programming across districts or across schools in order to meet those needs,” Seelig said.

The Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union — which covers Windsor, West Windsor, Weathersfield and Hartland — has used federal Covid relief money to pay for a four-week extended school year program called Summer Academy for Recovery. But it is struggling to find paraeducators to work in the program, according to Katie Ahern, the supervisory union’s director of student support services.

“Our support staff is fried,” Ahern said. The district has managed to slow down resignations and retain more paraprofessionals, she said. But those workers need the summer to decompress. 

According to Ahern, Windsor Southeast has struggled most with hiring specialists such as speech language pathologists and occupational and physical therapists.

“We haven’t had a single direct applicant this year,” Ahern said, referring to speech therapists.

As a result, Windsor Southeast has resorted to hiring specialists through agencies. Ahern said the traveling specialists have been excellent, but there are drawbacks. Similar to the firms that send traveling nurses to hospitals, these education agencies charge school districts considerably more than it would cost to hire their own staff, Ahern said. 

Ahern says other school districts face the same issues.

“None of my colleagues, none of us are getting bites,” she said of hiring specialists. “We’re all having to do agencies.”

Ahern said she shares and receives information about which agencies are the most affordable with other special ed directors.

If a traveling staff member decides to stay and work in Vermont permanently, the district must pay the agency a finder’s fee. According to Ahern, those fees range from 10 % to 20% of the salary — that is, $5,000 to $10,000 for a job that pays $50,000. 

Still, paying the fees is often more cost-effective than continuing to staff through an agency, Ahern said. 

Despite staffing difficulties, Windsor Southeast has worked on creative solutions. The district has pursued a “grow-your-own” special educator approach, in which people with education backgrounds can receive a provisional special education license if they’re participating in the required schooling. 

The approach has attracted interest from paraeducators looking to advance professionally, Ahern said. Windsor Southeast is also developing a coaching and mentorship program for special educators to provide support for new teachers, which could further improve retention. 

Ahern, herself a parent of a student with “intensive needs,” said she and her staff have worked to improve communication with families, acknowledging the “bumps and bruises” along the way and explaining plans for improvement. 

“We have explanations. We’re trying not to use things as excuses,” Ahern said. “We’re moving forward, and we have families that are willing to do that with us.”

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