Utah schools face staff shortages that can make it ‘incredibly challenging to operate’

Many districts only have a handful of unfilled teaching positions, but are in “dire need” of support staff.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students enter Glacier Hills Elementary in Sandy for the first day of the school year in the Canyons School District, Monday, Aug. 15, 2022. The district is facing a shortage of support staff, like other districts in the state.

As schools nationwide struggle with a teacher shortage, many districts in Utah face a different challenge: Hundreds of unfilled jobs for paraeducators, cafeteria workers, aides and other support staff.

“We have rarely been at such low numbers of our support staff,” said Canyons communication director Jeff Haney in an email. “It makes it incredibly challenging to operate a school if we don’t have enough support staff. It means that the current staff must do extra duties, which contributes to burnout and resignation rates.”

While many districts have only a handful of unfilled teaching positions, there are hundreds of support job openings across the state.

Of Granite School District’s 177 job postings, 81 are for paraeducators and instructional assistants. Spokesperson Ben Horsley said Granite’s most critical need is in nutritional services, where the district has around 50 openings.

Horsley said Granite has always struggled with paraeducator positions, even before the coronavirus pandemic, so the number of those openings is always elevated.

The shortage of support staff puts pressure on those with larger class sizes, said Renée Pinkney, president of the Utah Education Association, noting the shortfall is being seen statewide.

“You just don’t feel like you are meeting the expectations that not only you set for yourself, but have been set by the individualized education plans for students receiving special ed services, or for multilingual learners,” Pinkney said. “Bottom line, you have teachers who are feeling like they just aren’t being supported.”

During the first two school years of the pandemic, many Utah districts struggled to find substitute teachers and increased their pay rates. Compensation is also an issue for paraeducators, Pinkney said, with some leaving their jobs during the past two years for jobs that paid better.

What about the teachers?

Alpine School District, Utah’s largest school system, serves over 81,000 students and it had 359 openings as of last week, according to its employment website. Alpine’s main concerns are its openings for bus drivers, nutritional service workers and classroom aides, communications director David Stephenson said.

It also has around 100 paraeducator positions, which it expects to fill in the next few weeks.

These paraeducators help assist in the classroom for students with disabilities, multilingual students and others students with special needs. Some of these open positions may be filled, but just haven’t been removed from the website, Stephenson said.

“This is normal for this time of the year,” he wrote in an email. “The good news is the majority of teaching positions have been filled and there will be teachers in classrooms for the first day of school. We were similar to these numbers last year.”

Both Alpine and Granite said they are not facing a critical need for teachers. And Canyons and Ogden school districts both are planning to start the school year with only a few substitutes in their classrooms.

Ogden still needed six teachers as of Aug. 15, said Jer Bates, its communication director, in an email. The district had potential hires going through the employment process, but they may not be officially cleared by the first day of school, Bates said.

Canyons has a teacher for every general-education K-12 classroom in its district, but it hired three substitutes to start off the year for unfilled positions that require a specialty in special education.

“Last year, when we had a substitute shortage, we reassigned office staff to fill those positions,” Haney said. “We do the same with all other positions. We do what needs to be done to operate the schools.”

[Read more: Amid a staffing crisis in Utah schools, here’s what these new substitute teachers learned]

The Jordan School District has offered bus driver training to employees willing to take on the added role, FOX 13 reports.

‘Doing the best that you can’

Utah is seeing some impacts from the national teacher shortage, such as an increase in underqualified teachers and larger class sizes, said Malia Hite, the state Board of Education’s executive coordinator of educator licensing.

At the end of the last school year, Utah saw a 1.8% increase in the number of teachers leaving education, according to the licensing office.

But there is a silver lining, she said: The shortage is forcing state officials to “think innovatively” about teacher preparation.

One change was the restructuring of educator licensing in Utah, which gave individual school boards the option to license teachers at the local level — so educators may teach without completing a prep program, as long as their district provides them with additional support and mentoring.

“One of the biggest changes is a shift to competency-based teacher preparation,” Hite said. “This means that individuals can demonstrate that they have the knowledge, skills and dispositions to do the job of a teacher without having to complete an inflexible list of college courses and exams, which is often an expensive barrier.”

Teachers are always excited for the new school year, Pinkney said, but that excitement may fade as more responsibilities are added to their plates to cover for unfilled positions.

“There’s always just a belief that we are going to change lives, that we’re going to be able to make a difference in our students’ lives, that we are going to go in and be very collaborative with our peers,” Pinkney said. “Then as the year progresses, and you don’t have enough support, then you start to realize that you are doing the best that you can.”