The superintendents of East Central and Comal Independent School Districts will be part of the Texas Education Agency’s new task force created to help districts across the state address staffing shortages that have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The TEA announced Thursday that East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano and Comal ISD Superintendent Andrew Kim are part of the 28-member Teacher Vacancy Task Force, created at the behest of Gov. Greg Abbott.

In a letter Tuesday to Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Abbott directed the agency to establish a task force of stakeholders and experts to investigate the challenges teacher shortages create for schools and find solutions to fill the increasing number of vacancies in districts, including the possibility of easing certification requirements for teachers. The task force also will develop policy change recommendations and provide feedback on initiatives to the agency.

“Teachers are the single most important school-based factor affecting student outcomes,” Morath said in a statement. “The Teacher Vacancy Task Force will further ensure our ability to provide the best guidance, support and resources to help schools find and retain the teachers they need for all their students.”

The task force will meet virtually every other month for the next year. While only two teachers are on the committee, the TEA plans to establish a designated teacher panel to garner more guidance and feedback from teachers across the state.

San Antonio school districts have struggled to find enough teachers, and they’re leaning on a dwindling pool of substitute teachers than ever before to temporarily fill those vacancies. Teachers are resigning or retiring, leaving behind retention bonuses, for health concerns or burnout. Districts have increased substitute pay rates to attract more qualified candidates, but many are retired teachers who don’t want to substitute on campuses where students aren’t wearing masks.

Toscano said Thursday that he hasn’t seen this level of teacher attrition since 2011, when the state Legislature cut $5.4 billion from the public education budget, forcing school districts to lay off thousands of teachers.

“In the last decade, there’s been declining opinion about the profession and educators, and that’s just weighed heavily on folks. The demands of educators today are much greater than they were a decade ago and prior,” he said. “We’ve got a dilemma on our hands, and we’ve got to think about solving these challenges in ways we’ve never thought about.”

There are adjustments school districts can make immediately to alleviate teachers’ workloads, Toscano said, such as changing schedules and teaching assignments to better match teachers’ experience. But he doesn’t think that’s not going to solve the long-term problem.

“I think there’s some adaptive challenges that are much more complex that are causing teaching not to be the profession of choice for some of the most talented folks out there,” he said. “The rate at which folks are leaving the profession today far exceeds the rate at which they’re coming in, and we’ve got to think in a multi-pronged way about addressing this.”

Being on the committee will help expand Toscano’s perspective of staffing shortages, he said, although he is “cautiously optimistic” about the changes that could happen at the policy level. He also said he wished more than just two teachers were on the task force.

“The consensus of the group was we need a lot more teacher voice,” he said.

While she applauded the creation of the task force, Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina also said in a statement that she was disappointed the task force only included two teachers.

“The state leadership — beginning with the governor, who has repeatedly attacked teachers and public schools for much of the past year — must give teachers the respect they deserve and have earned as hard-working professionals, including during our deadly health emergency,” Molina said in the statement. “An important part of this respect is talking with teachers and listening to what they have to say.

“Who knows better about why there is a teacher shortage than real experts, the teachers themselves?” she said.

Texas American Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo echoed the need for more teachers on the task force in a statement.

“Who knows better how to retain teachers than teachers who have been retained? This board should be full of them,” he said in the statement. “Superintendents and administrators may know the challenges of recruiting teachers, but the real input from teachers in the trenches about the stresses they face daily is essential.”

recent survey by the Texas AFT of more than 3,800 school employees found that 66% considered leaving their jobs in the past year and just 12% of respondents felt safe at work during the January omicron surge.

“We have a teacher retention problem. This should be obvious,” Capo said. “The least the governor could do is show some respect — respect for teachers’ experience and their perspective in their professional field. Now is the time to listen to teachers.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.