OKLAHOMA CITY — School districts across Oklahoma are struggling to find qualified and willing teachers as the academic year looms.

Education advocates say they won’t know exactly how acute the problem is for a few more weeks, but that they are hearing from both teachers and administrators that there are far fewer teachers available to hire than in years past.

“We are in a crisis,” said Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. “When we have more vacancies — whether it’s teachers or support professionals — that has a direct impact on our kids, on their learning, being able to be transported to school, food service. It impacts their daily life in the school setting.”

Bishop said a lack of teachers means larger class sizes, longer waits for the bus and less individualize instruction for students

She also said a lot of districts are using excess federal COVID-19 relief funding to try to boost incentives and retention pay, but she said she believes it’s time for lawmakers to tap into the nearly $700 million they had aside for their failed bid to bring a Panasonic battery factory to Oklahoma and invest in public schools.

Kyle Reynolds, Woodward Public Schools superintendent, said his district has four teaching vacancies and 10 support staff openings.

One classroom will be staffed by a student teacher. The district also started the summer with seven special education teacher vacancies. After increasing the signing bonus to $5,000, the district only needs one more, but being down one teacher is going to make it a struggle to serve special needs students.

“When we cannot find qualified teachers for our classrooms, students suffer,” Reynolds said in an email. “Being able to prepare students for postsecondary opportunities is also good for our economy and good for our communities. Public education is at the very foundation of our nation, and to say that I am concerned for the future is a dramatic understatement. Investing in public education means we are investing in the future of our country.”

Joe Siano, associate executive director at the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said his group does an annual survey focused on the teacher shortage and will have solid data on what that looks like in the next few weeks. But his group recently had over 400 openings still posted on its website.

“There’s all indications that we’re going to see that the teacher shortage is obviously real and significant again this year and becoming more of a challenge,” Siano said. “I think what we’re seeing now is a much broader reduction in the pool of candidates.”

He said that reduction is also in areas where the state traditionally had a lot of candidates, such as in elementary education and early childhood.

“I think we’re seeing a combination of lack of new traditionally certified teachers coming into the system, teachers retiring out of the system, and I think those things coming together and people finding other things to do has exacerbated the situation.”

Siano said state education officials have already approved 1,400 emergency certifications, which allows non-traditionally trained people to teach.

“I think most of our educators, our administrators would love to be able to fill every classroom with a traditionally trained teacher,” Siano said. “But that’s going to be a long-term problem to solve, so we are fortunate that we have found and then been given the opportunity to have other pathways through our Legislature, and we have people out there that really want to commit to schools and make an impact.”

He said a few years ago, Oklahoma was near top in the region in what it paid educators, but now has dropped to fourth, so lawmakers are going to have to make a long-term commitment to recruit, retain and bring teachers into the profession.

Still, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were pockets of fully staffed schools, but in general it’s been “a very challenging, challenging year.”

Stillwater Public Schools said they have three openings heading into the school year, but with ongoing student enrollment, the number of teachers needed is in flux. The district said it has fewer vacancies than last year, which it attributes to earlier recruiting and outreach to universities.

“Here in Stillwater, a vibrant, resilient community that values education, we’re doing better than most places at recruiting highly qualified teachers,” superintendent Uwe Gordon said in a statement. “Our commitment to supporting and developing our educators is paying great dividends during these trying times, but we can’t do that forever as teachers continue to leave the state and the profession in the face of inadequate support from our state and a culture that attacks public education and one of the noblest professions.”

He said districts can’t solve the teacher shortage on their own, and there’s only so much that can be done with funds that fall short of what’s needed to adequately teach, feed, care for and transport students. Gordon urged Oklahomans to reach out to their elected officials to press them to increase school support.

“Hiring a teacher, someone to lead students through lessons, is always good,” he said. “That class is staffed; we can operate. But hiring a highly-qualified teacher, a graduate of one of our state's stellar teacher preparation colleges, who is equipped for success from day one with content knowledge, instruction and classroom management skills, and adequate funding from our government - that is what every child is worthy of and deserves, and something everyone in Oklahoma should expect our state to provide.”

Terry Heustis, superintendent of Westville schools, said they had a hard time finding applicants this year, but did fill every position. In the past, the district received 25 to 30 applications for an elementary position, but is now lucky to get 3 or 4.

Watts Public Schools has one opening for a certified school counselor. Since, they can’t find anyone, the superintendent, who is also a certified school counselor, will be stepping in. A career specialist will also double as a guidance counselor, and the school will work with licensed counseling agencies, the district said.

Stilwell Public Schools superintendent Geri Gilstrap said the district has 11 teacher openings, but has applicants to fill all but a soccer coach and health teacher vacancy.

The district employs 220 people and has had to add new positions, yet seen fewer applicants.

Johnny McMahan in Woodward, Beau Simmons in Stillwater, and Renee Fite in Stilwell contributed to this report.

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