By Elizabeth Stuart, CNN
Florida’s teacher shortage has worsened since the start of the school year, with vacancies for teachers surging to more than 5,000, according to updated data from the Florida Education Association.
There are also more than 4,000 openings for other school staff positions, according to FEA President Andrew Spar.
The organization released its initial findings in August, but since the figures were so high, it recounted vacancies again in October, only to discover an increase. FEA’s Spar took to TikTok on Sunday to publicize the staffing situation, saying the state had about 5,100 teacher positions open.
“These numbers and trends are an alarm bell going off for our public schools, and state officials need to start listening,” Spar said. “Educators have made clear why they’re leaving our schools, and young people will readily share why they don’t want to pursue an education career.”
The FEA said the stress and uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic have fueled the shortages in the state, but it is also connected to low pay.
The data underscores the challenges facing the education system in Florida, where school boards have been at odds with Gov. Ron DeSantis over mask mandates and the federal government has challenged the state over such measures.
The US Education Department recently repaid a group of Florida school board members whose salaries had been withheld for implementing mask mandates in defiance of the governor’s executive order that parents, not school officials, decide how to protect their children in the pandemic.
And last month, the department’s civil rights enforcement arm said it was opening an investigation into whether the Florida Education Department “may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities” with the mask mandate ban.
‘Right now, it’s brutal,’ teacher says
The number of teacher vacancies as of August 2021 was more than a 67% increase from August 2020, according to the FEA’s full survey results.
“We are now two months into the school year, and by this point those numbers typically drop significantly. However, this year, is different,” Spar said in his TikTok video.
The vacancies come as the pandemic adds stress and exacerbates pre-existing problems for Florida teachers, said Gretchen Robinson, a reading teacher at Orlando’s University High School.
Many students fell behind last year during remote learning, “and we’re double-timing it to try to catch them up,” she told CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday.
“And unfortunately, we’re dealing with very large class sizes, so that makes it even more difficult,” Robinson said.
She also points to “insecurity about how the health of students, teachers and staff is going to be protected going forward.” She noted that her district, Orange County Public Schools, is one of the districts enforcing a mask mandate in defiance of the governor’s executive order.
And she said pay is a “huge issue.” The average salary for teachers in Florida ranks 49th in the nation, according to the FEA, more than $10,000 less than the national average, which was $65,090 for the 2020-21 school year, according to the National Education Association.
“I would love to be making what my colleagues in states with an actual teaching budget, who are veteran teachers like me, are making,” Robinson said. “That would be great, considering the insane hours I put in during this (pandemic) situation.
“Even at the best of times, teaching is challenging — it’s a challenge I love. But right now, it’s brutal.”
‘Alarming’ vacancies in support staff
The FEA also found “alarming” vacancies in support staff categories, including 75% of all districts advertising openings for bus drivers and hundreds of listings for custodians, office managers, and food service workers.
To illustrate the severity of the problem, Spar scrolled through several districts job listings during his video. There are 278 vacancies in Duval County in northeast Florida, and openings in South Florida’s Broward County for 89 elementary, 41 high school, and 25 middle school teachers.
The next survey will be conducted in January after classes resume from winter break.
Correction: This story has been updated to remove outdated information regarding Florida’s plan to use federal Covid-19 relief funds for schools. The state submitted its plan on October 6. Additionally, an earlier version of this story had the wrong first name for Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar.
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CNN’s Jason Hanna contributed to this report.