At Fountain-Fort Carson High School, a digital marquee advertises job opportunities to parents and passersby.

After nearly two years of closings and reopenings, shifts in learning platforms, and multiple COVID-19 quarantines, a school day in the Pikes Peak region now gives off the appearance of near normality.

Most schools are operating in person, and students move from class to class — some with face coverings, some without — without worrying about social distancing as the pandemic shows signs of receding.

But in the final quarter of the 2021-2022 school year, districts in the Colorado Springs area and across the state face a different challenge: a shortage of teachers and staff that has some employees and families concerned for the immediate future.

According to Colorado Department of Education data, Pikes Peak-area school districts have more than 400 vacant teaching jobs, with Academy School District 20 — the region’s largest — showing more than 140 vacancies.

The local shortage is a microcosm of a national problem. Even before the coronavirus upended the teaching profession, school districts across the country reported teachers quitting or retiring in growing numbers. The COVID-related upheaval exacerbated the problem.

“The pandemic, of course, was a huge strain,” said Laura Andujar, a teacher at McAuliffe Elementary School in Colorado Springs School District 11. “I had to restructure the way I taught, and deal with a lot of back and forth. It was extremely stressful.”

Pandemic-induced personnel shortages are hardly restricted to the teaching profession. In what has been dubbed the “Great Resignation,” Americans in nearly all industries have staged a mass employee exodus, with 4.4 million people leaving their jobs in February alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Additionally, the number of college students considering a career in education has been steadily dwindling.

“While we haven’t seen a significant shortage in staffing, we are seeing a much smaller number of applications being submitted for open jobs,” said Fountain-Fort Carson District 8 spokeswoman Christy McGee.

The pandemic, which added to an already stressful job by forcing teachers to instruct their students virtually, is a chief reason for the shortage, but teachers say it’s far from the only reason.

“Teachers are tired,” said Angelica Givler, an elementary schoolteacher. “And it’s not the kind of tired you can fix with a nap.”

From her perspective, morale among her fellow teachers is low, Givler said. One reason many teachers are considering quitting — and a possible reason fewer prospects are applying for jobs — has been a shift in public attitude toward the profession. At the height of the pandemic, teachers were being publicly praised for their flexibility and forbearance.

Now that "critical race theory" has replaced mask mandates as a primary concern among some parents, a number of teachers say they are being accused of setting aside traditional classroom instruction in favor of advancing a political agenda.

“Two years ago, people were calling us heroes,” Givler said. “Now, we’re under attack. People are saying we’re overpaid, and that we’re indoctrinating students.”

Critical race theory, a graduate-level academic framework not typically taught in K-12 schools, has been the subject of heated discussion in school board meetings across Colorado. Last August, District 49 approved what is thought to be the state’s first measure banning CRT in classrooms. Multiple school board candidates campaigned — and won their respective races — based on anti-CRT platforms.

Despite protestations to the contrary, many parents in the region believe CRT is being taught in Pikes Peak-area schools under the guise of diversity and equity initiatives.

“That is absolutely not true,” Givler said. “If we were teaching CRT or anything like it, parents would have been able to see that when we were teaching virtually. It’s just not happening.”

Relatively low pay, teachers and administrators agree, is another major reason for the shortage. The average salary for Colorado teachers is about $54,000, compared to a national average of $61,000, according to a report from the Colorado School Finance Project.

In the Pikes Peak region, starting teacher salaries range from about $36,000 on the low end (Lewis-Palmer School D-38), to $46,000 on the high end (Fountain-Fort Carson D-8), according to recent pay schedules. The minimum salary for a teacher with a doctoral degree is about $55,000 a year; most similarly educated Coloradans earn well above $100,000 annually.

“We are terribly underpaid,” said Givler, a 13-year teacher with a doctorate in elementary education. “District 11 is one of the best-paying districts in this area, and they offer great benefits, but even we are not being paid commensurate with our education and experience.”

Most districts now offer hiring bonuses for new teachers, as well as retention bonuses for current teachers. Amounts vary from district to district.

In an effort to bring in new teachers, the Colorado Department of Education plans to launch its Teacher Recruitment Education and Preparation program in the 2022-2023 school year. Officials hope the initiative, with specifics still “under development,” will increase the influx of new teachers by reducing the time it takes for students to obtain a teaching degree or certificate.

Locally, districts are casting a wider net, increasing the size and frequency of their recruiting efforts. Most districts are recruiting nationwide through in-person and virtual job fairs. Fountain-Fort Carson District 8 has redoubled its local marketing efforts, including using its digital marquees to inform parents and passers-by of job opportunities. 

Several districts are also making efforts to grow their own teachers. Harrison School District 2’s staff-to-teacher career path covers tuition for educational support employees who want to become teachers, and offers tuition assistance for Harrison grads who return to teach in the district upon graduation. Widefield School District 3 and District 8 offer a Teacher Cadet program that informs high school students about the requirements and inherent opportunities in the teaching profession.

But some teachers say districts need to focus more on retaining the teachers they have. According to a National Education Association survey, more than half of U.S. educators are considering leaving the profession, either by retiring earlier than planned, or quitting outright.

“My daughter is a freshman in college, and our original plan was for me to retire when she graduates,” said Amy Ver Duft, a high school math teacher in D-20. “I’ve moved it up.”

Andujar predicts that while some educators will seek employment in a different profession, most, like her, will continue teaching for the foreseeable future.

“I consider (quitting) about once a week,” Andujar said. “But as much as I think about it, the children keep me here.”

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