Brenna Doherty sent her resume for a teaching position on a Saturday. By the following Monday, a week before the year began at Kings Highway Elementary School in Westport, she was hired as the new kindergarten teacher.
“I was basically thrown into it,” Doherty said. “It was in the span of a week that I got the job.”
Doherty hadn’t even thought of teaching so soon after graduating from Central Connecticut State University, which is known as a teaching school. She finished her undergraduate studies in the spring and had started working toward a master’s.
But as schools reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, districts are rushing to fill the holes that teachers who chose not to return have left behind.
The gaps are statewide. The state Department of Education has identified certification shortages in everything from math and science teachers to school psychologists and special education professionals.
And according to Kelly Education, which helps supply substitute teachers to 50 of Connecticut’s school districts, the need for substitutes has doubled during the pandemic.
CCSU Assistant Professor of Elementary Education Michael Bartone said that though CCSU “always gets a steady stream of students who get jobs,” the current hiring rate is unusual and will only persist.
“There seems to be more of a filling of the positions because of the craziness,” Bartone explained. “[The number of requests for teachers and tutors] is not out of the norm, but I think it will be in the coming months and next year.”
A mutual friend connected Doherty with Kings Highway’s vice principal, who’d been asking around for qualified educators to hire before the year started. Now Doherty juggles teaching online all day with doing assignments at night for her master’s in integrated technology.
“It’s crazy, but we’re making it work,” Doherty said.
CCSU student-teachers are helping with the shortage as well. Michael Fiorillo, a CCSU student-teacher at John Barry Elementary School in Meriden, said that while he’s currently assisting another teacher, he’ll be teaching on his own in October.
“I’m basically doing the same thing I would be doing as a teacher,” Fiorillo said.
Fiorillo added that with the “absurd” number of job openings right now, he wishes he could get his certification earlier and work full-time, similar to how Gov. Ned Lamont and the Department of Public Health accelerated certifications for nurses in training in March.
Fiorillo said that despite the unknown being overwhelming and the school-work balance getting challenging at times, he’s enjoying being a student-teacher.
“We’re going good on the fly, but no one really knows what’s happening now,” Fiorillo elaborated.
In addition to their health concerns, Fiorillo and Doherty both said they’ve heard from veteran teachers that they’re leaving their posts because adjusting to online and hybrid instruction is taking a toll. Fiorillo said that even having to print out each student’s worksheets individually — there’s no paper-passing anymore — can get taxing.
Dana Malave, a 2018 CCSU graduate teaching 4th grade at the Capitol Region Education Council, or CREC, magnet school in Rocky Hill, said the pressure teachers are constantly under might contribute to educators opting out this year. She’s in person in the classroom full-time and she is focused on bonding with her students and being mindful of whether they feel safe.
“Sometimes I think the stress and the demands society and the government put on us is a lot. You really have to sacrifice your time at home and it sometimes becomes your number one thing in life,” Malave said.
“I think that we are definitely essential workers and we should be treated as [such],” she continued.
Connecticut’s government has tried to aid schools and appeal to teachers by routing $50 million from its CARES Act fund to help cover staffing costs. Moreover, the State Board of Education passed a proposal in August that gives schools more flexibility over hiring teachers.
The fact that fewer teachers than anticipated have retired has proven beneficial, too. The number of teachers who retired this summer reportedly went down 14 percent compared to last summer.
Sandy Fraioli, a veteran teacher of 30 years at New Britain High School, is one such teacher. She rescinded her resignation in April even though she’d wanted to move on from the classroom to do something new in education.
“I got my wish. It’s definitely something different,” Fraioli stated. “It’s a whole different world, but it’s okay. And sometimes I think something needed to shake up the education system. Certainly this is not something good, but it’s a sign of the times and we need to keep updated.”
Fraioli still teaches at New Britain High, and is now working with the state Department of Education on Educators Rising, a program which promotes teaching to students. She said her alma mater, CCSU, is “really on board with it” and that she’s optimistic about the future of teaching even if the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the classroom so much.
Back at Kings Highway Elementary School in Westport, Doherty said that in spite of the challenges, she’s glad she’s teaching during these unprecedented times.
“I’m happy I took the chance and didn’t push it off because it is really rewarding,” Doherty said. “With teaching, you just kind of have to jump in headfirst, get wet as fast as possible and take it as it comes.”