After months of distance and hybrid learning, this school year looked to be more normal.

Teachers were feeling optimistic about resuming in-person learning and getting away from Zoom or Microsoft Teams. They were ready to see the smiles and hear the laughs in the hallway between classes and return to something that felt "normal."

But that feeling of optimism soon diminished as staffing shortages forced educators to work longer hours, bring work home and miss lunches to fill in for a sick colleague who was out because of COVID-19 policies.

At the same time, teachers are scrambling to help students catch up academically and socially after nearly two years behind a computer screen. 

"This year has been so emotionally, mentally and psychologically taxing," said Marty Gutierrez, an eighth grade math teacher at Silver Hills Middle School in Westminster. "This is my most difficult year in 27 years of teaching."

Many teachers, administrators and union officials said this year's difficulties have taken a toll on educators and have even led some to leave the profession altogether.

Joel Mollman, an English language development teacher at Hamilton Middle School, said four teachers there have quit since Aug. 23, Denver Public Schools' first day. 

Robert Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said 54 DPS teachers left during the first three weeks of the school year and an additional 156 teachers were on leave, which could be paternity or maternity, a sick day or vacation.

"When you have those teachers that are just choosing to leave the profession, it's just not sustainable," Gould said. "They just don't have the capacity to keep doing this every day and that creates a hole and you have to backfill and it's a never-ending issue."

A shortage of substitute teachers has exacerbated the issue. There aren't enough people to cover for a teacher taking a sick day, let alone someone who walks off the job. Denver Public Schools has around 400 substitutes in its substitute pool. In a normal year, it would have about 1,200, said Lacey Nelson, the district's director of talent acquisition.

The shortage of staff prompted several schools — including George Washington High School, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College and John H. Amesse Elementary School — to temporarily switch to remote learning earlier this month.

Other districts like the Adams 14 School District and Boulder Valley School District recently canceled classes districtwide because of staffing issues. 

At schools that continue to offer in-person learning, the shortages have impacted each teacher immensely as they've missed lunches and planning times to cover for a teacher-less classroom.

"We are all giving up at least two or three lunches or planning times a week, oftentimes more just to keep the school running," Mollman said. "So we're falling behind on our own responsibilities on our own classroom."

As the cold and flu season has begun, more and more educators have missed work because of the district's COVID-19 policies, said Amber Elias, lead operational superintendent at Denver Public Schools.

"We've always wanted people to stay home when they're sick, but stakes are higher now than I think before the pandemic," Elias said. "Before the pandemic people came to school with colds on a much regular basis, but now in all of those situations where people would've worked before, everybody is just really mindful and not taking any chances when it comes to safety. People are calling in and staying home until their symptoms resolve."

The teacher shortage isn't new. It's been an ongoing issue, said Keith Elliott, director of client services for Kelly Services, which provides substitute teachers for districts across the country, including Aurora Public Schools.

Five years ago, Kelly Services only needed to put out yard signs or advertisements asking for substitute teaching support and would easily attract people through those methods. But that's not working anymore, Elliott said.

"Over the last several years, there just aren't enough teachers for that to be a viable strategy, so we've had to be a lot more aggressive in what we do from a marketing standpoint and what we look for in teachers," he said. 

The teaching shortage is also impacting students. In some instances, classes have been combined and have become so large that class had to be held in the cafeteria, said Gutierrez.

"You might have 50 or 60 kids in the cafeteria studying and doing something from the projector at the front, while there are 300 kids walking through their 'classroom' and standing in line to get their lunch," Gutierrez said. "It's just kind of crazy because there might be a science class and a music class sharing the cafeteria at the same time."

In an effort to incentivize people to substitute teach, many districts have offered pay increases and signing bonuses. DPS has increased its daily pay for subs between 4% and 8%, while Kelly is offering a $200 bonus for subs who work 20 assignments in Aurora Public Schools. 

Despite their efforts, most districts are struggling to find people and officials say there doesn't appear to be an end in sight.

"I would hope that we get to a place where we move beyond this, but right now it certainly doesn't seem it's going to ease up anytime soon," said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association. 

While the staffing shortages are damaging morale, teachers are also dealing with students who have fallen behind in their studies. Gutierrez said many students are struggling in his math class because they weren't able to retain what they've learned from the past two years.

He describes the issue as "unfinished learning" and said it has hindered the growth of many of his students.

"Trying to address those needs while trying to keep them progressing so they're not further falling is challenging," he said. "We're trying to make sure they're not lacking those skills so they don't miss out on curriculum in high school."

Educators like Gutierrez expected some regression in students' skill retention, but not to this extent.

Similarly, teachers believed there would be some social and behavioral issues that stemmed from remote learning for nearly two years. 

Mollman said students have been displaying "destructive behaviors" at an alarming rate, with more fights, bullying and even property being destroyed. 

"We knew there were going to be some issues for students who didn't have strong support at home and were left alone a lot," Mollman said. "We didn't realize the extent of it and that's been a big piece of this year."

He added that his school psychologists and social worker who address these issues are booked days if not weeks in advance. 

To try to alleviate the burnout and impact of the shortages, several districts like DPS have given teachers extra days off to give them an opportunity to focus on their mental health.

DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero announced the district would have an extra day of Thanksgiving break following a recommendation from the U.S. Department of Education and after hearing from teachers, staff, parents and students about the challenges this year has presented.

"I hear from teachers saying, 'We love to be here, but we feel like it's March,'" Marrero said at a news conference. "Meaning the March fatigue is setting in on our teachers because of the heavy lift. The heavy lift comes with everything that is post-pandemic, and responding to well beyond the scope of their work."

Baca-Oehlert applauded the district's decision to prioritize the health and wellness of its teachers and staff.

"We need to have awareness around the need to address the mental health needs of not only our students, but our educators," she said, adding that "when you have those feelings (of being exhausted and overwhelmed), it's hard to do your best in your place of work."

Despite this year's struggles, Gutierrez says he still looks forward to having students in his classroom each day. He believes by next school year things will begin to look more "normal."

"I'm really hopeful that we get through this, that we take care of each other and get back to our old normal," he said. "I don't know that it's going to happen this year, but I'm hopeful, and I believe it's possible to happen by next year."

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