2021 | Schools

MCPS employees say ‘dire’ staffing shortage pushing them to ‘breaking point’

School board approves cost-of-living adjustments, retention incentives

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MCPS employees cheer as a car picket begins outside of the district's headquarters in Rockville. Employees gathered to draw attention to what they called a "dire" staffing shortage.

Caitlynn Peetz

Montgomery County teachers say they are at their “breaking point” as the squeeze of a “dire” staffing shortage continues two months into the district’s attempt to return to in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, dozens of MCPS employees, mostly teachers, gathered outside the district’s headquarters in Rockville to highlight their struggles and call on the school board — meeting inside — to address the shortage head-on.

“We’re told, ‘Do it for the kids,’ but that’s really weaponized against teachers. They’re holding the children hostage in this situation,” said Jennifer Martin, the president of the Montgomery County Education Association, a union for teachers. “We need the relief to do right by the students. We want to, but there aren’t enough of us, there aren’t enough hours in the day and there are too many demands that don’t lead directly to student learning.”

MCEA has filed three class-action labor grievances on behalf of more than 90 schools in response to the increased workload for its members, Martin said.

And while the school board approved additional compensation as a gesture of appreciation for “going above and beyond” during the COVID-19 pandemic for members of all three employee unions, it’s not enough and doesn’t address the root problems, according to the union.

Martin said MCPS must ensure that teachers no longer have to work during their lunch periods, compensate them for lunches and planning periods they’ve already worked, and restore planning periods.

MCPS leaders say they appreciate employees’ extra work during the pandemic, though they have described staffing shortages as a “very real problem” in recent weeks.

“I’m grateful to be part of a school system where employees are going above and beyond,” Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight said.

On Tuesday, the school board unanimously approved several adjustments to employees’ compensation. The agreement approved by the board on Tuesday for the members of all of its unions includes:

• A cost-of-living adjustment that will increase all salary schedules by 1.5%, effective Jan. 29
• All unit members eligible for step increases during the 2021-22 year will receive them on March 12, 2022, or on the date of actual eligibility, whichever is later
• All employees as of Oct. 15 will receive an “incentive payment” of $1,100
• All employees hired between Oct. 16 and Feb. 1 will receive the $1,100 payment, prorated at $110 per month for “the number of remaining months in the fiscal calendar they are projected to be employed for 10 or more work days,” the agreement says

The district needed to obtain approval from the state Board of Education for the incentive payments because it plans to use federal COVID-19 relief money to fund them. The payments were approved in late September, according to Jimmy D’Andrea, McKnight’s chief of staff.

Sarah Parlopiano, a teacher at Francis Scott Key Middle School, said the staffing shortage — MCPS has reported hundreds of vacant positions districtwide in recent weeks — paired with the heightened social and emotional needs students have due to the pandemic has led to serious burnout.

“I feel like I am pouring myself into my students to be the kind of teacher they need me to be and I’m going home with nothing for my own family,” Parlopiano said. “So, I’m choosing constantly between being the teacher my students deserve and being the parent my son deserves, because there’s not enough to do both well, and that’s just not sustainable.”

Walt Whitman High School teacher Colleen Roots and Silver Spring International Middle School teacher Chelsea Van Tassell said other challenges include the stress of mandatory districtwide testing and a shortage of substitute teachers. When a substitute isn’t available, other teachers in the building share the load and fill in when they’re not teaching a class.

“It’s not ‘emergency coverage anymore.’ It’s every day,” Van Tassell said, adding that teachers have to give up time they counted on to grade work, prepare lessons or interact with families. “That’s directly detrimental to students.”

Pia Morrison, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 500, said her members are feeling the pressure, too.

When teachers are out sick and substitutes aren’t available, paraeducators are tasked with filling the gaps, she said. And bus drivers have to make double — sometimes triple — the number of routes to make up for driver shortages and avoid routes being cut.

She said MCPS needs to offer more incentives to attract employees, rather than relying on its reputation as a good school district.

“MCPS kind of likes to think of itself as the prom queen, but it was the prom queen 10, 15 years ago and you’re just not the same prom queen you were before and you need to respond accordingly,” Morrison said. “How do you attract and retain and stay competitive? That’s the point.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com