School staffing issues in Oregon called ‘real, emergency situation’

Julie Cleve, a reading specialist at Hallman Elementary School, helps studets learn about length and measurement. At a Senate Education Committee meeting school leaders said they are grappling with severe teacher shortages, especially in special education. (Salem Reporter)

SALEM – At a Senate Education Committee meeting on Monday, superintendents and representatives from school boards and teachers associations detailed dire staffing situations across the state that are harming students and even potentially violating federal law.

Among the most severe shortages: special education instructors. 

Staffing shortages have forced at least one education service district to curtail special education instruction. The Lane Education Service District, representing 16 school districts including Eugene, cut one day of Life Skills classes for students with cognitive disabilities. These classes include lessons on math, reading, as well as everyday skills like money management and household chores. 

Giving an unequal amount of instruction time to students with disabilities is a violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“Civil rights don’t go away in the midst of a pandemic,” said committee member Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, D-Corvallis. “It’s against the law, it’s outrageous and it’s immoral.”

Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, said the department was highly concerned about the impacts of teacher shortages on special education. He acknowledged that districts were failing students by not providing enough special education teachers.  

Tony Scurto, Lane Education Service District superintendent, later told the Capital Chronicle that the district has reduced the number of Life Skills class days from five to four because of staff shortages. He said some students, who need help with feeding and swallowing, could be put at risk without the appropriate instructor around. 

“If you do not have enough staff on hand it is a risk to student health, that is a big issue,” he said.

Lisa Gourley, a high school special education teacher in Sweet Home and the state president of the Oregon School Employees Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said even bonuses in the thousands of dollars being offered by some school districts aren’t attracting enough new teachers. 

The state allocated more than $1 billion to the Student Success Act in 2019, in part to help pay for more teachers so students would have additional instructional time, smaller classes and mental and behavioral health supports. But the money has not solved the problems, according to Gill.

“The Student Success Act gave us money for more counselors,” he said. “We cannot find them.”

The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission which issues state teachers licenses has issued 151 emergency teaching licenses to school districts this year so they can hire candidates without formal teacher training, up from 140 last year. Since introducing an emergency substitute teaching license a month ago, they’ve received more than 440 applications from school districts across the state. 

Senate Education Committee Chair Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said, “We’re facing a real, emergency situation.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

NEWS TIP? Please send an email to [email protected] for our reporters to consider.