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Washington school districts consider incentives during statewide educator shortage

Districts are looking at incentives and different recruiting tactics in hopes of bringing on staff and substitutes to reduce stress on teachers.

FEDERAL WAY, Wash. — School districts across western Washington are in dire need of more educators. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a shortage and teachers say it's left them scrambling to fill classrooms.

"I'm going on maternity leave later this year, and trying to find a person to consistently be in front of my class is very stressful," said Liz Amos, a teacher at Totem Middle School in Federal Way. 

Amos has a stack of papers on her desk filled with ideas from her students for school fundraisers. It's one example of why she loves teaching.

"These kids, they are so inspiring. I love being able to talk to them and learn about them," said Amos. "Getting to see them grow and knowing that I helped that is such an accomplishment."

She said this school year has been "interesting." Kids are back in the classroom, but COVID-19 protocols have been challenging, and a substitute teacher shortage has been hard on the full-time teachers and students.

"They know they're not getting their best education experience, and it's hard because then it winds up being a little bit chaotic if there's not consistent structure and the kids want structure, they need it," said Amos.

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Because of a lack of substitutes, Amos said students might see multiple teachers rotating from week to week to cover a class they wouldn't normally teach. The rotation can take away from teacher planning time.

"I know I've had those days where I'm just exhausted. I know a lot of peers do consistently," said Amos. "It's great that I have a team where we can build each other up." 

An educator shortage is being felt across western Washington. Districts are seeking emergency substitute teachers. 

Amos' district at Federal Way Public Schools said it's actively recruiting for several positions, including certificated substitutes. The district said it's advertising open positions at a range of locations, from social media to the local farmers market.

"Knowing there is a shortage for certificated substitutes in our region, we are exploring additional recruitment and retention strategies, including possibly adjusting our pay structure for certificated substitutes, in an effort to attract and retain more quality staff in this role," said Federal Way Public Schools Chief of Communication Whitney Chiang.

This week, Tacoma Public Schools announced increased base pay for substitutes to $200 a day. Employees are also eligible to receive a $150 bonus for candidates they refer that are hired to a district job.

The Federal Way School District also increased its pay for certificated substitutes to $200 per day to align with other districts in the region. According to the Federal Way Education Association, substitute pay was previously $155 per day.

The district is receiving money from the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to pay for bonuses for highly competitive positions. It includes up to $5,000 for nurses and $3,500 for bus drivers.

Tacoma Public School's Director of Communication Dan Voelpel said last week the district had 180 job postings listed on its website. 

"The competitive hiring environment has further increased the challenge of recruiting for these positions. The district is hoping the bonuses incentivize strong candidates," the district said in a release online. 

Amos recognizes this is a problem beyond her school district. She worries about how it impacts her students but also herself and fellow teachers. She hopes to see a solution beyond districts competing for educators. 

"From my district, my state, my nation, I want to see conversations happening that focus on our kids," said Amos.

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