Teacher shortage: Substituting becoming a norm for counselors at SJ's largest school district

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Tuesday, October 5, 2021
Teacher shortage: Substituting becoming a norm for SJ counselors
The nationwide substitute teacher shortage has led to counselors substituting classes on a regular basis.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- Officials from the San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) say its non-classroom teachers have long-helped with coverage in the past, as 'specialized personnel' have been obligated to sub for up to ten days a year.

However, the nationwide substitute teacher shortage has led to the recent approval of an emergency plan- one that would put counselors and others on-call, one day per week.

"Normally, we could count on 200 people a day to be available to serve in a classroom," SJUSD Deputy Superintendent Stephen McMahon told ABC7 News. "This school year, it's been about 100. People just aren't coming back to in-person jobs in the same numbers yet."

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Until then, 130 people, who McMahon said are employed as instructional coaches, intervention specialists, and both academic and social-emotional counselors are being called on.

"Everyone we're asking to substitute has a credential," McMahon added. "They're prepared to teach, they're experienced. They know what they're doing."

"Number one, counselors aren't trained teachers. Those aren't the people we should have in classrooms," Dana Fate, a counselor within SJUSD admitted to ABC7 News. "Number two, we're coming back from a global pandemic. There's a mental health crisis, our students are struggling, and to pull counselors one day a week is just such a disservice to our kids."

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Fate has been a counselor within the district for six years.

Different today, Fate said she and her colleagues are regularly doing suicide assessments, safety plans, and talking kids through anxiety attacks. They said all these issues have been brought on and amplified by the on-going pandemic.

She fears how "reducing responsibilities" might hurt students.

"Instead of a full-time counselor, now I'm an 80% counselor, 20% on-call substitute teacher," continued.

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McMahon argued, "We think this will benefit students because they'll know the counselor is going to be there to keep the appointment they have scheduled now, because we won't be calling them and asking them to substitute unless it's their scheduled day for substituting."

"So, you can think about the counselor now having an assurance that they'll be there for the students for counseling services those four days a week," he elaborated. "And only one day be available for substituting."

However, members with the San Jose Unified Equity Coalition (SJUEC) are coming to the defense of counselors. You'll remember the organization helped to remove San Jose Police officers from district campuses.

"We want more counselors and not cops," Crystal Calhoun reminded.

Calhoun is with SJUEC and has four grandchildren at SJUSD. She said this move to make counselors part of the substituting rotation will take away from the progress students made since returning.

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She said the last 18 months have already been so unpredictable for students.

"So much of their learning was lost in the last 18 months," Calhoun shared. "And we're getting back into the school year and they need that support even more. And, you know, they need some consistency."

Fate also shared survey results from a questionnaire by the San Jose Teachers Association.

The question asked: What of the two options described in the email and at the meeting would you prefer? Adopt the MOU? Follow the Existing Contract?

Results show of the 54 of respondents who identified as counselors, 79.63% chose "Follow the Existing Contract," while 20.37% of those who responded to "Adopt the MOU."

For the other positions, including Instructional Coaches and Intervention Specialists, a majority of respondents chose "Adopt the MOU."

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Fate told ABC7 News, "The other job classifications were in favor because they have teaching credentials," pointing to an ultimatum by the teachers union.

ABC7 News reached out to the San Jose Teachers Association and its president Patrick Bernhardt for comment and did not hear back.

The district employees can specify their preferred grade and subjects, and can be deployed to any district school.

McMahon told ABC7 News, "It's a mix of preparation and just shared responsibility. We really do need to support each other to make this happen."

He said the new system will give the district a chance to get the specialized personnel on the schedule in advance.

"We've needed substitutes every day this school year," he said. "This program is to make sure there's a consistent schedule for employees and they're not being asked to substitute without knowing it's coming."