Washington Elementary School 4th grade teacher Oscar Zarate instructs students in physical education on August 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Washington Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Oscar Zarate instructs students in physical education. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Amid a statewide shortage of teachers and substitutes, Berkeley Unified is struggling to keep its schools fully staffed this fall.

The pandemic has turned teachers away from the profession, and substitute pools are shrinking. In some California districts, schools that couldn’t fill vacancies had to send entire classes home.

Berkeley Unified currently has 129 vacant positions, a 50% increase from fall 2019. The vast majority of the vacancies are among non-teachers: There are only two vacant teaching positions, both in special education. Berkeley Unified now employs 1,775 staff members in total.

Even with an almost full teaching roster, it’s been hard to keep classrooms staffed, with teachers out due to COVID-19 and a declining number of substitutes. In response, BUSD doubled down on efforts to fill vacancies, relying on temporary contracts and raising pay for substitutes.

“Probably our single biggest challenge right now is a staffing challenge,” Associate Superintendent Rubén Aurelio said at a school board meeting Sep. 8.

There are 18 vacancies for special education aides and two for special education teachers. BUSD said it is working with five outside agencies to provide special education services to students while it works to fill the positions.

Berkeley’s after-school program is also short-staffed, with more than 24 vacant positions and a waitlist 250 students long that has left families scrambling to find alternatives for their kids. (There are 1,431 students enrolled in the after-school program this fall, down from 2,380 students in fall 2019.)

“[O]ur employers expect us to be back to work full time and so in person school and after school is an absolute necessity,” Emily Han, a BUSD parent who started a petition this summer asking the district to provide more robust after-school services, wrote in an email. Han said some families have found alternatives run by the city of Berkeley or private companies.

At last week’s school board meeting, the board approved a contract with Sports for Learning, an agency that will temporarily fill the vacant roles and allow the waitlisted students to enroll while the district attempts to hire after-school staff.

“BUSD is continuing to provide high quality services to our students, even as we confront a statewide staffing shortage and the many associated challenges,” Trish McDermott, the spokesperson for the district, wrote in an email.

Pandemic-driven shortages

Even while schools are fully staffed, more teachers are absent for reasons related to COVID-19, and a shortage of substitutes has made it difficult to fill in for absent teachers.

“We have never seen a sub shortage like we have now,” Matt Meyer, president of Berkeley’s teachers union, said at a board meeting.

Following the district’s COVID-19 guidelines, teachers with cold symptoms now stay home until they get a negative test, while some stay home to quarantine when their kids are exposed. On Thursday, Sept. 9, the district had three staff members at home due to COVID-19. (The district did not answer a question about how many staff members have stayed home due to COVID-19 since the start of the school year.)

The district said its substitute pool is smaller this year than in 2020 or 2019 but did not report by how much.

Substitute teachers are picking up fewer assignments and a large group of subs are not willing to work due to risks associated with COVID-19, according to McDermott. Like other districts, Berkeley Unified filled vacancies by hiring former substitutes into long-term or permanent positions, further reducing the number of subs available.

The district hired 124 certificated staff members this fall, most of whom are teachers. On average, the district has hired 87 new certificated staff members each year since 2014.

No time to prep for class

At Berkeley High, teachers have been volunteering to cover classes when other teachers are out, which Meyer said is happening more and more frequently. Administrators have also stepped in to cover classes when teachers can’t be called on.

“Teachers are losing their prep periods, which will lead to major burnout over time,” Meyer said.

“The system, as it is currently operating, is completely unsustainable. There are simply not enough bodies on campus to keep students supervised and safe, much less inspired, learning and thriving,” said Hasmig Minassian, who teaches ethnic studies and leads the universal ninth-grade program at Berkeley High, at an Aug. 25 school board meeting. Without substitutes, some classes have been forced to move to the library, Minassian said. Berkeley High’s librarians declined to comment for this story.

Chemistry teacher Aaron Glimme said the substitute shortage has not put undue pressure on him. “There are definitely fewer subs, but it’s not unprecedented,” Glimme told Berkeleyside, pointing out that teachers volunteer to cover classes and that some like doing it for the extra money.

At elementary schools, Meyer said, staff members, including members of the special education department, have jumped in when teachers are absent.

To attract substitutes, Berkeley Unified raised its starting rate from $184 to $225 per day, according to Meyer. It is also considering a proposal to hire site-specific substitutes who would be stationed on campus five days per week, which BUSD says would cost $100,000 per teacher, due to sick leave and benefits. It’s been a challenge to hire these subs because many want to work a flexible schedule, according to McDermott. Six site-specific substitutes started Sep. 13.

“It’s just another issue around how COVID has impacted our schools and unforeseen weights and things that we have to wrestle with because of the pandemic,” Meyer said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how much substitutes are paid per day. It’s $225, not $220.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...