Tampa Bay schools ready to reopen, but will they have enough teachers?

Kelli Rivera listened as Hillsborough County School District leaders tell the teachers’ union they can’t afford permanent pay raises this school year.

‘It’s not like we’re respected,’ the Lewis Elementary kindergarten teacher said as she and two colleagues discussed the challenges of teaching in 2022: larger class sizes to cover vacancies , poor behavior from children who missed a year of socialization during the pandemic, and the rising cost of living.

“After COVID, we came back and were on that pedestal,” said Angela Oser, education specialist for exceptional students at Yates Elementary. “Now it’s like we’re dirt on someone’s shoe.”

Students watch Catherine “Missy” Lennard, principal of the Dorothy C. York Innovation Academy PreK-8, speak during the Hillsborough County School District’s annual back-to-school press conference on Wednesday, August 3, 2022 at Apollo Beach . The magnet school will open for the first time on August 10. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Across Tampa Bay and across the country, educators are preparing with some trepidation for students to return. Doors will open Wednesday in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

Headteachers say they are excited about the new initiatives and new schools. But they are also scrambling to keep teachers on board at a time when political disputes over race, sexual orientation and gender identity spill over into education. And, just like families, school districts spend a lot of money to cover food and fuel.

At last count, Hillsborough was short by almost 700 teachers, which does not include an estimated shortfall of 670 bus drivers, nutrition workers and other support staff.

Music teacher Kori Barber, left, of Watergrass Elementary at Wesley Chapel, talks to job candidate Elizabeth Crentsil at a job fair on July 19, 2022.
Music teacher Kori Barber, left, of Watergrass Elementary at Wesley Chapel, talks to job candidate Elizabeth Crentsil at a job fair on July 19, 2022. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]

Officials in Hillsborough and Pasco hope to make education more attractive by raising salaries with proceeds from local option property taxes. But voters will not go to the polls until August 23 on these initiatives. And even if the measures are passed, districts won’t see the money until late 2023.

Rivera, 55 with 20 years of work, has a 24-year-old son who lives at home and a husband who teaches middle school science without enough time to plan. Her own work was difficult last year because many children, lacking preschool experience, were not ready for kindergarten.

But she likes the age group. “If I say, ‘Let’s sing a song,’ their eyes get so big,” she said. “Everything is so exciting.”

The personnel situation varies from district to district.

Pasco Superintendent Kurt Browning told the school board on Tuesday that with 354 vacancies, he could declare an education emergency that would allow him to relax some of the hiring rules for teachers.

Follow What's Happening at Tampa Bay Schools

Follow What’s Happening at Tampa Bay Schools

Subscribe to our free gradebook newsletter

We’ll break down the local and national education developments you need to know every Thursday.

You are all registered!

Want more of our free weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s start.

Explore all your options

“A lot of our young teachers tend to want to experiment with teaching for about a year and then try something different,” said Joel DiVincent, who was trying to fill five classroom teaching positions at Paul . R. Smith Middle School at Holiday at a recent job fair.

In some cases, teachers quit mid-year. “Starting with one teacher and then changing, that can turn into a struggle,” DiVincent said. “As a director, I can manage. But I don’t want my students to struggle.

In Pinellas, district leaders said there was not really a problem. Speaking at a meet and greet session at Bay Point Middle School, new superintendent Kevin Hendrick said his district has 100 teaching positions and only 15 need to be filled. He planned to use district staff “until we were able to find a teacher. And if we can’t, then that’s the new role for this district staff.

All districts in Florida are facing changes this year to both teaching standards and the state skills testing schedule.

And there is concern about state laws stemming from the parental rights movement and Republican concerns about “woke indoctrination” in schools. Officials brace for book challenges at school media centers and complaints from parents who believe teachers speak inappropriately about sexual issues.

Already, some districts require parental permission for services that previously did not require permission. At Pasco, parents will be asked to sign online consent forms related to human growth and development courses, use of the library, health services, confidentiality during student surveys, and appearance in media-related activities.

Education officials are hoping culture wars and an inflationary economy won’t stand in the way of an enthusiastic return to school.

Hillsborough opens its first Montessori program at Essrig Elementary in Carrollwood and expands its college-level Advanced International Certificate of Education or AICE course offerings.

There’s a new app for bus drivers, more Spanish-English bilingual programs, and the all-new York PreK-8 school near Apollo Beach.

Pasco plans to open its long-awaited East Side Vocational and Technical High School, which has been on the district’s wish list for more than a decade. The Kirkland Ranch Academy of Innovation will offer advanced academics and programs such as biomedical sciences, engineering, and applied cybersecurity.

And at Smith Middle School, where principal DiVincent wants to double parent engagement events this year, families are invited to an educational “Fright Fest” in October.

Pinellas has expanded his college and career centers to all of his high schools and embraces a wellness program backed by Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady.

Hendrick, the superintendent, said he was focusing on morale. “We need to move away from strictly computer-based learning,” he said. “We have to get away from ‘you’re not sick and the teacher isn’t sick’ and all that stuff. We need to make school fun and fun for the teachers. We want kids to say, “I can’t miss this class.”

To reassure parents horrified by the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, some districts are showcasing their emergency training and equipment. Pinellas deployed ALERT, a platform that brings together panic buttons and apps, and coordinates real-time notification to law enforcement in the event of an intrusion.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t look for a way to improve the systems we have,” said Pinellas School District Police Chief Luke Williams. “The training is continuous and constant.”

And, as in previous years, a new generation of independent charter schools will come online.

A ribbon cutting was held on July 25, 2022 to mark the opening of Dr. Kiran C. Patel Elementary School in Thonotosassa.
A ribbon cutting was held on July 25, 2022 to mark the opening of Dr. Kiran C. Patel Elementary School in Thonotosassa. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]

Six-year-old Maxwell Marty sat with his mother at the July 25 ribbon cutting for Dr. Kiran C. Patel Elementary School in Thonotosassa.

“It’s going to be fun,” Maxwell said as her mother, Alysha Marty, remarked that she’s looking forward to a return to structure. “Problem solving is where he gets tired,” she said of her son. “And being a pioneer here is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Onstage at the Patel event, District Schools Manager Sue Burkett watched the clock as she headed to a staff meeting to discuss teaching vacancies. Palliative measures include temporarily reassigning 290 district staff to replace some teachers and accelerating the annual transfer schedule.

But Burkett said as he got into his car, “if we can do COVID, we can do it.”

Times writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

Comments are closed.