‘Critical Shortage’ of Special Education Teachers as Kids Head Back to School

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This article was published on NBC Washington by Scott MacFarlane, Katie Leslie and Jeff Piper on April 23, 2021.

Washington, D.C.-area public schools are suffering a “critical shortage” of special education teachers as students return from the long year of virtual learning, according to a review by the News4 I-Team.    

A lack of available special ed instructors has dogged school systems across the country for yearsbut now risks being exacerbated by resignations, retirements and workload increases caused by the pandemic. 

A Virginia Department of Education report reviewed by the I-Team lists special education instructors at the top of its list of teacher shortages statewide.A 2018 Maryland State Department of Education report also cites a “critical shortage” of special education teachers. And just last year, the U.S. Department of Education described the shortage of special education teachers as “among the most pressing and chronic problems facing the field.” 

Claudia Fennell, whose young daughter is amongthe nearly 7 million American children receiving special education services, said she knows how hard it can be to find and retain these types of educators. 

“When Penelope started first grade … they had a terrible time finding a para-educator for her,” Fennell told News4. “And then they finally found somebody and she quit after three days because it’s a hard job and they don’t pay enough.”

Experts say that while there’s decline in educators across the board, it’s especially acute in special education because of recruitment and retention challenges.The National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services blames the poor retention on a variety of problems, including excessive paperwork, unmanageable workloads and barriers to gaining necessary credentials that could lead to full-time work and better pay.

A December 2020 draft report from Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission said the state often relies on provisionally licensed special education teachers — who are only required to complete one class on the “foundations of special education” — when it can’t fill positions with fully licensed teachers. 

According to the report, roughly 30,000 Virginia students with special needs were taught by a provisionally licensed special education teacher in the 2019-2020 school year. And the report found that while 5 percent of teachers in other subjects had a provisional license, an estimated 15 percent of special education teachers had only that qualification. 

The shortages are occurring at a particularly bad time for students with special education needs. Parents and school officials told News4 the year of virtual learning and separation from classmates has caused regression and stress for students.  

“Isolation has been difficult for a lot of kids, particularly for kids with disabilities,” said Loudoun County Public Schools psychologist Shoko Brown. “All the progress we made with social skills, that’s going to be hard to get back.”

Several local school districts told the I-Team they are increasing their efforts to recruit new special education teachers.

Spotsylvania County Public Schools is offering virtual recruitment fairs.

Prince William County Public Schools said that, in the 2021-2022 school year, the board has approved hiring additional special education teacher assistants for the Office of Special Education. 

Prince George’s County Public Schools acknowledged it’s suffering from a shortage of special ed teachers, but a spokeswoman said the school district is providing incentive to new hires, including tuition reimbursement and moving expenses.

Howard County Public Schools said it is offering “open contracts” for special education teachers, which allows the school district to sign commitments from special ed instructors before specific vacancies occur.

Bowie State University has partnered with Howard County Public Schools to help train the school district’s part-time para-educator staff to become full-time, certified teachers. The university is using a state grant to cover the costs of the program, providing the service for free to the part-time Howard County workers. 

Dr. Jacquelyn Sweeney, a Bowie State educator involved in that initiative, said there are fewer teachers enrolling in certification programs and the grant money could help boost enrollment in critical fields, such as special education. 

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Katie Leslie, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.