Students arrive at Gaithersburg Middle School for the first day of school in late August. Credit: Caitlynn Peetz

Michelle Bright’s ninth-grade son is in an Algebra 2 class without a permanent, full-time teacher at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington this school year. Students have been learning through videos lessons and a long-term substitute is filling in.

“It’s frustrating when your child doesn’t have a teacher in such a critical subject – particularly in a subject his dad and I really can’t help him [with],” says Bright, who worries that her son may not be ready to move on to the next level of math if the situation doesn’t improve. “We are at the mercy of the school and the school system, which have their limits.”

More than two months into the school year, Montgomery County Public Schools parents continue to speak out about the lack of consistent instruction from qualified teachers because of staff vacancies.

There are 124 vacant full-time teacher positions — 51 of which are in special education — and 341 full-time support service vacancies, including 123 for paraeducators, according to Chris Cram, a spokesperson for MCPS, which employs about 14,000 teachers.

The staffing shortage is a challenge facing districts across the country.

The U.S. Department of Education reports 53% of public schools were understaffed entering the 2022-23 school year. The highest areas of need: special education and transportation.

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Considering the national teacher shortage, MCPS is doing really well – but more work needs to be done, school board member Scott Joftus says. Joftus was appointed to the District 3 seat of long-time board member Pat O’Neill after she died in 2021.

In early October, MCPS officials offered a progress report on filling vacancies and recruitment efforts during a meeting with the County Council’s education committee. The officials reported that 99% of teacher vacancies had been filled. 

“Any opening is a huge problem,” says Joftus, who is running for the District 3 seat in the Nov. 8 general election. “It’s obviously impacting students and it’s not good for anyone.”

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While the percentage of unfilled positions seems relatively minor, teachers union President Jennifer Martin says, almost every school in the county has vacancies—which has created larger class sizes and affected learning. There is an influx of substitutes, who are not required to have expertise in the subject they teach, Martin says, and there are about 200 new hires with provisional contracts who do not have teaching certification or training.

“There is a burden on our consulting teachers to provide them the support they need. That’s added strain to the system,” Martin says. “And our kids are having to manage in these classrooms where people may have a degree, but they don’t have the experience of dealing with educating children and getting that content across. So that is a challenge.”

MCPS spokesperson Jessica Baxter said in an email that MCPS “strives to hire candidates who are certified or working toward certification.” She said the state provided localities a waiver to allow conditionally certified teachers to fill positions during the teacher shortage.

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“These candidates are in the process of being certified and are provided a consulting teacher that provides one-on-one support around the professional growth system. They also go through the New Educator Orientation, which introduces teachers to the MCPS curriculum and latest ongoing assessment methods,” she adds.

At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, it was seven weeks before a teacher was hired for the Advanced Placement physics class. With a series of substitutes covering the class and no real instruction provided, B-CC senior Sam Lev says the class was initially like a study hall in which students often spent their time doing other homework, filling out college applications or hanging out. Students were given textbooks by the first substitute and recommended practice problems were posted online by another B-CC science teacher, but Lev says it was difficult to learn on their own.

After the late start, Lev says it’s not likely all of the material will be covered this year to prepare students for both the AP Physics Mechanics and AP Physics Electricity and Magnetism (E&M) exams in the spring.

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“I think the bigger frustration or disappointment is just that I’m interested in physics,” says Lev, who wants major in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field in college. “I would have liked to have learned E&M, to be able to go to college familiar with that content.”

The B-CC PTSA hosted a Zoom meeting Oct. 6 for parents to discuss the physics teaching situation. “It was incredibly stressful,” PTSA President Lyric Winik says. “A lot of these kids need this class for their college and career plans… . This is a hard requirement for the higher education they want to pursue, and it has a real impact.”

At Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, senior Ernest Lingani says he didn’t have an assigned teacher in his honors English class for the first three weeks of the school year. Substitutes and counselors filled in to talk to students about writing college essays.

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Lingani, president of the Student Government Association, says the essay writing tips were helpful and, as a likely engineering major in college, the delay in having a teacher wasn’t much of a setback: “It gave me chance to really learn more in other classes and concentrate on that before I had to focus on English.”

Taking action

Parents at Einstein have formed an informal advocacy group to call attention to the vacancies, make their own suggestions to help students in the interim and push for better communication from MCPS about the extent of the vacancies and status of hiring.

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“The lack of urgency is astounding… even after all the talk about learning loss and, in particular, in math and literacy” resulting from school closures during the pandemic, says Carolyn Ross, an Einstein parent organizing the effort to address the open math positions at the Kensington magnet high school.

According to MCPS, Einstein has two math vacancies. The two long-term subs have a math background or experience teaching math, Baxter wrote in an email, and the district has one vacancy posted that it hopes to fill it with a December graduate.

Parents at affected schools have suggested adding parent volunteers, expanding tutoring, rotating teachers between classes or having instruction streamed into the classroom until vacancies are filled.

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“We need to work together on this,” Winik says. “I would like more collaborative problem-solving with MCPS. I don’t want to just make noise. I would like us to work together to solve the problem.”

Innovative approaches are needed, Joftus says, but it can take time and negotiations to put new ideas in place. One way to expand the pipeline of teachers is through the district’s “Grow Your Own” program that promotes career pathways into teaching for MCPS students, he says. Joftus and others are also pushing to raise salaries for teachers and hourly wages for paraprofessionals.

“Pay is an issue,” says Martin of the Montgomery County Education Association, who says real wages have dropped about 15% in the past 20 years when adjusting for inflation. MCPS is in the midst of contract negotiations with the union, which is pushing for pay increases and incentives for recruitment, particularly in high-need schools where it can be more difficult to staff and retain teachers.

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Martin says about 1,100 teachers left MCPS during the past school year – most retiring, but about 400 exiting early, often because of exhaustion from all the demands placed upon teachers.

She says hiring is likely pretty much over for the school year, although there may be some recruitment for December graduates of teaching programs.

“We have seen a great reduction in the number of students pursuing K through 12 education as a career, so in the immediate term, there are only so many people to draw from,” Martin says.

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Need for special education teachers and paraprofessionals

It’s difficult to attract paraprofessionals to assist children with disabilities, in part because of the low pay they receive, says Allison Wohl, whose seventh-grade son Julian with Down Syndrome attends Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda.

“MCPS has the resources, they just choose not to prioritize special ed,” says Wohl. This year, Julian does not have a dedicated paraprofessional although his Individual Education Plan (IEP) requires seven hours of one-to-one support. Instead, the school is cobbling together coverage with existing staff, she says.

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“Not having a consistent para is very disruptive for him and makes an already very challenging situation more difficult,” Wohl says. “Our son thrives on predictability and structure, so having several different people supporting him really throws him off.”

Without aides to give needed attention to students with significant needs, which often include behavioral issues, teachers must step in, says Stephanie Frumkin, an educational consultant in Silver Spring working with students with a variety of learning differences. “It impacts the whole class,” she says. “The teacher is having to sub in for a para and do extra work that takes away from all the other students in the class. It’s just a trickle-down effect to everyone.”

Compounding the issue is the increase in the number of students facing mental health challenges coming out of the pandemic, which adds to the strain on the system to serve those with emotional disabilities, Frumkin adds.

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Stacy Ganz Kahn, president of the Winston Churchill High School PTSA, says special education programs are dealing with the brunt of the teacher shortage in MCPS. Offering bonuses in high-need areas and pathways to teacher certification for paraprofessionals could help remedy the situation, she said.

Still, Ganz Kahn says the Potomac school is pretty well-staffed, unlike other schools in the county, because people want to teach there.

“Retaining teachers is all about morale in that building,” Ganz Kahn says. “We retain at Churchill because of the support of the administration.”

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