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Philadelphia School District teacher vacancies, absences have created a staffing crisis in some buildings

Some schools have open jobs in the double digits. “It’s almost impossible to operate buildings with that many vacancies, especially with absences on top of that,” said union president Jerry Jordan.

Vacancies are so high at some Philadelphia schools that some central-office staff will soon be dispatched to fill gaps. Edison High, in Hunting Park, is down teachers, climate staff, and a nurse.
Vacancies are so high at some Philadelphia schools that some central-office staff will soon be dispatched to fill gaps. Edison High, in Hunting Park, is down teachers, climate staff, and a nurse.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Three months into the school year, the Philadelphia School District has nearly 1,900 vacant positions.

That’s so many that, beginning Monday, about 50 staffers from the district’s administrative offices will leave their posts to answer phones, teach classes, and monitor cafeterias in a handful of schools that Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has deemed “in crisis with staffing.”

One, Thomas A. Edison High in Hunting Park, has 12 unfilled teaching posts, as well as vacancies in other crucial supporting roles, including climate staffers whose job it is to monitor and regulate student behavior, and special-education assistants. Some of the jobs have been vacant since September, but others come up as staff have quit. With such a shortage at the city’s fourth-largest high school — Edison has more than 1,000 students — hundreds of students freely walk the hallways all day, often causing trouble, multiple staffers told The Inquirer.

“It’s horrible,” Robin Lowry, a veteran physical education teacher at Edison, said of the staff shortage at her school. “We’re just not getting anybody.”

» READ MORE: Where have all the substitutes gone? With pandemic protocols and low pay, fewer Philly-area educators are taking the risk.

Philadelphia typically employs about 19,000 workers, and its 3% vacancy rate for teachers this year is not much worse than in previous years, the district said. But the practical reality of the open jobs — spurred by a national labor shortage — is complicated by the staff absences, a dire lack of substitutes, the pandemic, and a challenging school year after children had been out of classrooms for 18 months. The result is crushing in some schools.

‘Almost impossible’

Edison’s vacancy situation is the most dire, according to data from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Some schools have one or a handful of vacancies; others have as many as eight. That means thousands of children across the city lack permanent teachers deep into the school year.

At a school board meeting this month, Hite said there were 1,869 vacancies across the system, which educates about 120,000 students in more than 200 schools. Teacher openings accounted for 257 of them, but the district also needed school nurses, climate staffers, and bus assistants. Almost 10% of the nursing jobs were unfilled — including at Edison — and the district was searching for more than 200 climate staffers.

“It’s almost impossible to operate buildings with that many vacancies, especially with absences on top of that,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Christina Clark, a district spokesperson, said the list of schools that will receive staffing support from the central office is not fixed, and will change based on data, with workers mainly filling in to provide classroom coverage, lunch or recess duty, or front-office help. To further help, Clark said, the district in January plans to offer full-time roles to all climate staff now working part-time jobs.

Edison is supposed to have 98 teachers, but 12% of its jobs are unfilled. Its vacancies include 10 special-education teacher positions. But most days, there are even more spots to fill because of staffers calling out. Edison and many other Philadelphia schools rarely find substitutes to fill open jobs.

“On a hard day, we have anywhere between 22 to 30 absences,” said Awilda Ortiz, Edison’s principal. She’s currently out on medical leave after her blood pressure spiked to near stroke levels, a condition she said was caused by school stress.

As the last school year ended, Edison had six vacancies, including teachers and climate staff. But over the summer, as the district readied to fully return to in-school instruction, “people became afraid” of returning, Ortiz said, and those numbers swelled. The school year began with more than a dozen vacancies, and the principal warned central office she needed help. Among other things, the school has a staff threshold it must meet under federal special-education requirements. One in three Edison students requires special-ed services.

“Off the bat, we knew we were out of compliance because we didn’t have teachers,” Ortiz said.

Then in September, tensions boiled over and the school was locked down after 40 students were involved in multiple fights. Staff call-outs increased. To cover vacancies and absences, Ortiz covered classes herself. She dispatched nearly every member of her staff, including administrators, behavioral health workers, and counselors, to monitor classes.

» READ MORE: Some Philly school officers say they don’t have the resources to protect students and themselves

“It was very challenging to regain some of our climate and culture pieces when we do not have people to staff the building,” Ortiz said. “Trying to function properly, and have common planning time to build our instructional capacity with our teachers — especially because we have so many new ones — was just incredibly challenging.”

A lack of consequences

Edison students have significant needs: All are considered economically disadvantaged, 34% need special-education services, 25% are English-language learners, many are returning from juvenile justice placements. That many have little consistency is a recipe for disaster, said Lowry, the health and physical education teacher.

“Kids are coming in, they run the halls, break into bathrooms, destroy science labs, doors, and we don’t have enough climate staff,” said Lowry. “These kids are coming in with no supports.”

Many children report to school and just walk the halls, going to classes intermittently or not at all, multiple staffers said. Students don’t listen when the adults order them back to class, and rarely are there consequences for those who break rules.

As a result, “some kids are afraid to walk the halls; we’ve lost a lot of really great students in the last month and a half,” said Lowry. Some have left for charters and virtual schools.

Edison, of course, isn’t the only school struggling. And even schools that rarely have vacancies are affected. Masterman, often ranked the top school in the state, is down five teachers, plus climate staff, according to the PFT. Central and Dobbins have eight teacher vacancies; Harding Middle School has six open teaching jobs, and Lincoln High, six.

The district has said it will adjust emergency support as needed.

But Robin Cooper, president of the district’s principals’ union, said the shortages are hurting schools across the city acutely.

“We are waving the flag,” Cooper said, “saying, ‘Help, help, help.’”