In Short

School staffing issues in Oregon called ‘real, emergency situation’

By: - November 15, 2021 6:06 pm

Julie Cleavem a reading specialist, works with students at Hallman Elementary School in Salem. (Fred Joe/Salem Reporter)

At a Senate Education Committee meeting on Monday, superintendents and representatives from school boards and teachers associations detailed dire staffing situations across the state that are harming students and even potentially violating federal law.

Among the most severe shortages: special education instructors. 

Staffing shortages have forced at least one education service district to curtail special education instruction. The Lane Education Service District, representing 16 school districts including Eugene, cut one day of Life Skills classes for students with cognitive disabilities. These classes include lessons on math, reading, as well as everyday skills like money management and household chores. 

Giving an unequal amount of instruction time to students with disabilities is a violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“Civil rights don’t go away in the midst of a pandemic,” said committee member Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis. “It’s against the law, it’s outrageous and it’s immoral.”

Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, said the department was highly concerned about the impacts of teacher shortages on special education. He acknowledged that districts were failing students by not providing enough special education teachers.  

Tony Scurto, Lane Education Service District superintendent, later told the Capital Chronicle that the district has reduced the number of Life Skills class days from five to four because of staff shortages. He said some students, who need help with feeding and swallowing, could be put at risk without the appropriate instructor around. 

“If you do not have enough staff on hand it is a risk to student health, that is a big issue,” he said.

Lisa Gourley, a high school special education teacher in Sweet Home and the state president of the Oregon School Employees Association, a union representing special education aides and other school staff, said even bonuses in the thousands of dollars being offered by some school districts aren’t attracting enough new teachers. 

The state allocated more than $1 billion to the Student Success Act in 2019, in part to help pay for more teachers so students would have additional instructional time, smaller classes and mental and behavioral health supports. But the money has not solved the problems, according to Gill.

“The Student Success Act gave us money for more counselors,” he said. “We cannot find them.”

The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission which issues state teachers licenses has issued 151 emergency teaching licenses to school districts this year so they can hire candidates without formal teacher training, up from 140 last year. Since introducing an emergency substitute teaching license a month ago, they’ve received more than 440 applications from school districts across the state. 

Senate Education Committee Chair Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said, “We’re facing a real, emergency situation.”

The story has been updated to correct the Oregon School Employees Association as a union representing teachers aides and other school staff, not teachers themselves. 

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

Alex Baumhardt is a reporter for Oregon Capital Chronicle. She has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post.