Chelsea Teachers’ Union raises concerns over staffing levels

By Adam Swift

A staffing shortage in the Chelsea Public Schools has had a negative impact on educators and students, according to teachers and staff who took part in the public speaking portion of last week’s School Committee meeting.

The majority of the meeting was dedicated to a statement from Chelsea Teachers’ Union President Kathryn Anderson, as well as about a dozen emails and letters from Chelsea school staff that were read into the record.

“Tonight, you are going to hear testimony regarding bargaining for central office about unfilled positions across the district,” said Anderson. “Hiring is in flux across the district, but our most recent report from the central office indicates that there are 50 unfilled positions across our bargaining units.”

Anderson said the numbers are in flux because the district is hard at work recruiting in the midst of a nationwide educator shortage.

“As a union, we recognize and appreciate the incredibly difficult work of finding and retaining a qualified and diverse workforce,” said Anderson. “Chelsea has rightly been celebrated for hiring members who reflect our student body; we all know the important impact this has on students’ educational, social, and emotional wellbeing.”

However, Anderson said even with all the hard work from the administration, there are still dozens of vacancies across the district. She said the most recent report as of last week showed the district was still looking to hire three instructional coaches, 12 paraprofessionals, and 32 teaching professionals. The majority of those teaching positions were in the special education and English Language Learner departments, she said.

In a statement on Tuesday morning, district officials said “At present the District has approximately 25 vacancies in educator positions with primary responsibility for staffing classrooms and/or providing necessary services for students. The District has an additional 10 vacancies in educator positions that, while important, do not have these primary responsibilities.”

Anderson said there have been a myriad of issues associated with the hiring shortage, including existing staff taking on the responsibilities of the unfilled positions, leading to potential burnout and services falling through the cracks because of the heavy workloads.

“We have been meeting with the district since September in attempts to address these impacts,” said Anderson. “Unfortunately, the district’s response so far has been far from what our kids need.”

The administration has agreed to make some minor changes, such as allowing paraprofessionals with bachelors’ degrees to serve as long-term substitutes and allowing school psychologists to miss some meetings.

As of last week, Anderson said over 375 staff members had signed onto a petition highlighting four requests from the union in regard to the vacancies.

Those requests include informing families when a student is missing a teacher and updating them on efforts to fill the position; cease and desist counting one educator as two positions in areas where the district is missing a special education liaison, multilingual educator, or general education teacher; compensating the understaffed school psychologists, multilingual educators, and general education teachers who are working solo when there should co-teacher or when there are increased class sizes; and adding lead positions when coaches are missing.

“We are seeking clear, simple remedies to this situation that will go a long way to recognizing the gargantuan efforts our existing staff are putting in to get what kids need,” said Anderson.

A number of educators and school staff submitted testimony about the hardships they are undergoing in making sure the duties of the unfilled positions are handled.

Browne Middle School math coach Jessica Flick said she has had to take over teaching duties and other responsibilities as the school is down one eighth grade math teacher.

“What this means to me is absolute exhaustion,” said Flick. “I work 12 hour days and then at least one weekend day every week. This workload affects my family, and I am only being compensated for the time I teach a math class, however I am planning seven sessions per week.”

Chelsea High School special education teacher Marjory Rome since she has not seen such unprecedented workloads in her 20 years at the school, and that each additional task educators are asked to take on with vacancies mushrooms the time it takes to complete them.

“It is painful for me to see my colleagues and friends doing two jobs without being compensated appropriately,” said Clark Middle School teacher Alison Gorman. “I believe that you know that teachers will pick up the slack left by the vacancies because we care about our students and we want the best for them. However, we have already seen many of our colleagues resign from Chelsea public schools and I am fearful that the level of burnout that we are experiencing will result in even more vacancies.”

School Committee member Katherine Cabral thanked the educators for their comments and said the committee did not take their concerns lightly.

In the statement from Tuesday, school district officials stated that “as bargaining with the Chelsea Teachers’ Union over the impact of vacancies on current staff is ongoing, the District must decline to comment further at this time.  It’s crucial to emphasize that the problem of teacher shortages is not exclusive to Chelsea Public Schools; it is a widespread issue across the entire state.”

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