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Thousands of vacancies for L.A. teachers, counselors, nurses remain days before school starts

A teacher stands in class between two students. All are wearing masks.
Dorene Scala teaches third grade during summer school at Hooper Avenue School in South L.A. The school system is looking for hundreds of teachers and thousands of new employees with the Aug. 16 opening of the school year approaching.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Days before the academic year starts, a well-funded hiring spree for Los Angeles schools is falling short of its goal to provide unprecedented and critical mental health and academic support as a shortage of teachers and other professionals collides with pandemic recovery goals.

The staffing ambitions of the nation’s second-largest school district have been sweeping — targeting hires to meet academic needs, mental and physical wellness and campus sanitation. And in all areas, staffing appears to be strengthened compared to pre-pandemic levels. But it’s also not what officials had hoped for — and leaders worry that important needs will not be met effectively.

Shortfalls are particularly pronounced in positions serving students most in need of academic and mental health recovery. Many teachers and counselors promised to elevate achievement and well-being of Black students haven’t been hired. Hundreds of special education and math teacher posts — the hardest to fill in normal times — are vacant. School nurses and mental health specialists are seemingly impossible to find. Half of the openings remain for school facilities and cleaning staff.

In all, the district had hoped to hire the equivalent of 4,389 full-time positions that require a professional credential for teaching or a related field. This would include librarians, principals, other administrators and counselors. Of these open slots, 2,000 — less than half — had been filled as of July 29, the most recent date for which figures are available.

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Several school board members and leaders of local advocacy groups found the number of vacancies worrisome.

“There has never been a more compelling need for support services and qualified teachers for our most vulnerable students,” said Katie Braude of Speak Up. “LAUSD must find a way to meet the immediate needs of students returning from a year and a half of limited instruction.”

“The staffing shortage should NOT be another disproportionate inequitable impact on our most vulnerable students,” said Ana Ponce, executive director of Great Public Schools Now, in an email.

Board member George McKenna wanted to see disaggregated numbers geographically pinpointing the vacancies — data that were not presented to the school board at its Tuesday meeting. In his prior service as a district administrator, he became familiar and frustrated with the high vacancy and turnover rate at schools that served large numbers of low-income and minority students.

A scramble is on to fill vital positions by the Aug. 16 start of school, but if schools were to open immediately, 479 classrooms would be staffed with substitute teachers. While the district is hiring continually, the classroom vacancy number has dropped by only seven teachers in the last 12 days. One problem is that some teachers are leaving the classroom to fill other vacancies, such as for reading specialists, administrative positions and other out-of-classroom jobs, leaving their principals with last-minute openings to backfill.

L.A. school officials have more money than they imagined to make lasting academic progress. Can they meet the challenge to help students recover from pandemic school closures?

Administrators described hiring efforts that include using job boards, social media, virtual job fairs, workforce centers, referrals, radio and print advertising and outreach through parent groups and labor unions.

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“During these unprecedented times, we are hiring everywhere,” Chief Human Resources Officer Ileana M. Dávalos said.

Los Angeles Unified is not alone in facing a hiring crunch. Even before the pandemic, teacher retirements were outpacing new teachers.

“About half the people coming in are coming in on substandard credentials, which means we don’t have qualified replacements,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the state Board of Education.

The last year saw a further uptick of teacher retirements, about 8% higher than the previous year, according to new data from the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. In L.A. Unified about 700 teachers retired, not far off from normal, according to Dávalos.

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The picture is equally challenging in areas outside of teaching.

The district budget included 190 new licensed vocational nurses — as the district aims for a nurse at every campus. The number of vacancies as of Aug. 2 was 190.

Officials also had authorized the hiring of an additional 770 buildings and grounds workers and school facilities attendants — who will play a crucial role in keeping campuses sanitized as they reopen for full-time, fully packed classes for the first time since March, 2020. About half of these positions are filled.

“We knew that this was a huge and massive undertaking when we authorized these positions,” school board President Kelly Gonez said.

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Particularly painful for Gonez was a lack of progress in special hiring that was supposed to benefit Black students and others with special needs. Programs for Black students were to have hired 92 counselors; so far, they’ve hired zero. Districtwide, there were supposed to have been 897 new pupil services and attendance counselors; so far 18% have been hired. Fifty mental health specialists were to have been brought on board; none have been hired yet, according to district information.

The Board of Education approved a plan that cuts a third of the officers with the Los Angeles School Police Department, bans the use of pepper spray on students and diverts funds from the department to improve the education of Black students.

The reasons are many.

Legal logistics are a problem in the case of 226 math instructional aides. The position, which does not require a teaching credential, is a new one, said Personnel Director Karla Gould. Because of that, the Personnel Commission had to write a job description and create a pay scale, which happened relatively quickly, but wasn’t completed until principals were on vacation. They returned July 30 with a new, unfamiliar position to fill. So far, none of the 226 have been hired, according to district documents.

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Nurses, on the other hand, have been in short supply for years. The district would like to develop its own licensing program, but that’s in the future.

The district is prioritizing filling classroom vacancies, Dávalos said.

The teacher hiring process can be lengthy. Candidates face background checks and are scrutinized for skills and training. They interview with central office staff and principals and hiring committees.

“We will never jeopardize our hiring standards,” Dávalos said. “We are not cutting any corners.”

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For once the problem has not been money. L.A. Unified is flush with more than $5billion in COVID relief aid, most of which is available for the academic and mental health needs of 465,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Whether the new staffing can be sustained over time is a separate and still-to-be-settled question.

In the meantime, the new school year presents one challenge after another, several of which were brought up by board members.

Jackie Goldberg said the district needed to make families better aware of where they could get COVID vaccines right now.

Instead of a back-to-normal back-to-school, the coronavirus casts new shadows over the return to full-time, in-person schooling.

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Tanya Ortiz Franklin raised concerns about a cutoff for some of the hiring. At a certain point, she said, stability might make more sense than simply shifting people around into new jobs or bringing on as many people as possible.

Her concern was echoed by Elmer Roldan, executive director of Communities In Schools of Los Angeles, a nonprofit that provides support to low-income families.

“It is imperative that LAUSD fill these vacancies within the first two weeks of schools reopening, or families may start losing faith in the district’s ability to keep children safe and effectively learning this coming school year,” Roldan said.

Board member Nick Melvoin said he’d heard reports that parents who wanted their children to remain online could not get through to the independent study program, called City of Angels. He suggested more staffing is needed there in the short term to field inquiries.

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So far, 12,586 Los Angeles students have opted for online-based independent study. That program should be fully staffed by Friday — a task made easier by the number of teachers who need to — or prefer to — remain online for health reasons.


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