ESTILL COUNTY, Ky. (LEX 18) — There were 567,000 fewer teachers in classrooms nationwide in early 2022 compared to numbers before the pandemic, according to the National Education Association. The exodus and slow pipeline of teachers back into the classroom is having an impact in Kentucky.
Class is back in session for more than 2,000 students in Estill County, and after months of hard work, all the classroom positions and filled.
The district chose to use the increased state funding they received last legislative session to give their teachers 3% bonuses. It's a move many districts chose not to make.
"We're so close that, you know, we have to really be proactive in terms of our salaries and our benefits," said Superintendent Jeff Saylor.
Saylor says that like many districts across Kentucky, they're trying to fight teacher shortages.
All classroom positions have been filled with full-time staff except for speech pathology and the school psychologist, which will be filled by outside agencies.
They've utilized multiple hiring alternatives like the MAT programs, which allow districts to hire students who are getting their Master of Arts in teaching programs even though they may have gotten their bachelor's degree in another field.
Amanda Bryant, Director of Special Education and Federal Programs, says the biggest thing is that students' needs will still be met. However, while they've found a way to make it work, Bryant says what they really need is to find teachers who are there to stay.
"The hardest thing about working with agencies is they're not our employees in our district, and so, sometimes they don't know our students as well. So, we would really love to find some staffing that would join our engineer family, and could be here with us full time," said Bryant.
Saylor says he's heard of a lot of districts taking this route for open positions, especially in special education.
It's a product of there simply not being enough certified teachers to fill them. Between the 2015-2016 and the 2021-2022 school years, the Kentucky Department of Education reports the number of job postings increased, but on average, just 83.5% of those postings were filled.
In Kentucky, the teacher turnover rate, the number of teachers leaving the profession each year, 16.2% for the 2020-2021 school year.
Along with that, teacher's union KY 120 United AFT has also seen its membership increase.
"Our phone is ringing all the time. Our email inboxes full of people wanting to join," said member Dr. Jeni Ward. "We've absolutely seen that we've been very useful during this time of the teacher shortage and helping combat some of that."
Looking at open teaching positions across central Kentucky, there are unfilled roles in nearly every district.
(Some of these numbers are from the district's hiring webpages and do not reflect candidates who have already moved through the hiring process.).
In Fayette County, where Ward has taught history for the past 18 years, there are 13 classroom vacancies.
"We do have a higher salary base. than other surrounding districts, and so we don't have as many vacancies as you'll see in our surrounding counties," said Ward. "What it's hiding, though, is that there are a lot of classified positions that are still not filled."
Classified positions are roles that don't require a credential like food service workers, bus drivers, secretaries, and instructional aids.
Ward says the union has heard from teachers all over Kentucky about having to do more work or pull double duty sometimes without pay.
"It becomes another duty assigned, but what we're seeing a lot of is the people who do show up are having their labor absolutely taken advantage of," said Ward.
Fayette County Public Schools Spokesperson Lisa Deffendall sent this statement regarding vacancies:
"Fayette County Public Schools is fortunate to have excellent partnerships with Kentucky colleges and universities that place us in a much better situation than many districts around the state and country. At this point, we have very few of our more than 3,000 teaching positions unfilled. Hiring is a continuous process, especially at the beginning of the school year. While there are 13 classroom vacancies listed on our website, we may be in the process of filling those positions. Taking down a listing is the final step in the hiring process."
The Kentucky Department of Education has been talking to lawmakers and advocating for both long-term and short-term solutions. But the consensus is there is no quick fix.
"I think it's going to be a matter of where you live and what your local school districts look like, what the local economy looks like," said Saylor.