Special ed classes go months without a teacher

By Clarissa Donnelly-DeRoven

When 11-year-old Nico started school in July, he and his classmates didn’t have a teacher. 

Instead, the certified special ed teacher next door created lesson plans for the class of six students at Holly Grove Elementary School in Wake County. Nico has autism and a seizure disorder. The other five kids in his class range in age from 8 to 11 and also have disabilities.

The teacher making the lesson plans split her time between teaching Nico’s class and her own, according to the district spokesperson, Lisa Luten. When she returned to her own students, others would take over: a substitute, an instructional aide, a teacher on their planning period, etc. 

Over the course of about five months, the school struggled to fill the position. As the weeks stretched on, parents told the school they were concerned — including Nico’s mom, Carinne Mossa. In August, she sent an email to Catherine Truitt, the state superintendent of public instruction.

“I am concerned that the mandated services in my son’s [individualized education program] are not being delivered in this environment,” Mossa wrote, as she explained the setup in her son’s classroom. “This is a group of students who need a certified special educator leading their day. I’m curious what is being done on the government level to end this teacher shortage? I heard about a $1,200 sign on bonus, but frankly that number is missing a zero. 

“Our children deserve better than this,” Mossa wrote.

Truitt responded and suggested that the school could be in violation of a federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires that public schools provide students with disabilities a “Free Appropriate Public Education.” That means schools must provide the proper learning accommodations each child needs, delivered by a certified and trained special education instructor.

Truitt wrote that she would check with others in her department to see what actions parents could take in this situation. Mossa thanked her. The next day, though, she got disappointing news. 

Nico, who’s 11 years old, went five months without a permanent teacher in his special education classroom in Wake County. His mom and others worry about the impact the teacher shortage is having on kids with disabilities. Credit: Carinne Mossa

“There is no legal recourse for a parent when the school is doing everything they can to find and hire qualified teachers,” Truitt wrote to Mossa. “This is definitely a pipeline problem as not enough teachers are going into special education to keep up with Wake County’s growing population. I wish there was more we at [the Department of Public Instruction] could do for you.”

Mossa didn’t like that response. Also, it’s not that simple. 

States are required by federal law to provide an accessible and meaningful education to children with disabilities. Advocates and researchers argue that schools can’t sidestep that obligation — even when they’re facing labor issues. The current shortage of special ed teachers isn’t new. It’s long-standing, grounded firmly in structural issues that show no signs of abating. 

‘It’s their basic job to provide instruction’

“We find that response very frustrating because it’s their basic job to provide instruction,” said Virgina Fogg, the supervising attorney of the education team at Disability Rights. “If you pay somebody enough, they will fill that position. Often what we see in situations like this is incentives need to be added to the pay in order to get that position filled.”

Moreover, she said, “You can’t just put a non-special education teacher in a special education classroom, or ask them to provide a special education instruction. It has to be done by a special education teacher.”

In fact, it’s federally required.

Special education teachers are required by law to have “content knowledge and skills to serve children with disabilities,” said Caitlin Whalan Jones, the director of the Education Law Program at the Council for Children’s Rights in Charlotte. 

Additionally, they must have “obtained full certification as a special education teacher — which could include certification obtained through an alternative route if the alternative route meets the federal requirements as well — or they’ve passed the state special education teacher licensing exam and hold a license to teach in the state,” she explained, reading from a memo published in October from the federal Department of Education.

“There’s no waiver, even on a temporary basis, for those federal requirements,” Whalan Jones said. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room.”

Schools can hire teachers who are in the process of pursuing their certification, but they have to get mentorship and professional development, and they can’t serve in that role for more than three years without their certification. 

The Department of Public Instruction has a guidance document advising schools on how they can meet these federal requirements when dealing with the labor shortage. The agency suggests that a school rotate a certified special education teacher back and forth between their classroom and the vacant classroom, the vacant classroom being overseen the rest of the time by a substitute. 

That is the plan Wake County implemented for Nico’s class.

Blair Rhodes, the Department of Public Instruction spokesperson, said schools “have been made aware” of their obligations outlined in the federal memo and that the DPI interprets the situation in Wake County “as a good faith effort to mitigate learning losses while vacancies are being filled.”

Others are skeptical if a substitute being overseen by a certified teacher really meets the requirements. 

“I’m not sure where that [interpretation] comes from,” Whalan Jones said. “My understanding is that they need to follow federal law and have someone who is qualified as a special education teacher in order to actually provide special education services to students.” 

Workforce shortage worsens

North Carolina, like the rest of the country, is facing a massive teacher shortage. Part of the reason is the pipeline, as Truitt mentioned. But low wages are also a problem. The average starting salary for a teacher in the state is $37,127, putting it in 45th place nationwide, according to data from the National Education Association. 

The state education department only collects data on job vacancies on the first and 40th school day of the year, not in real time. But the job dashboard the state uses to post vacancies, TeachNC.org, shows thousands of openings across the state — hundreds of which are for special education teachers and instructional assistants. 

In Wake County, the outlook is similarly bleak. According to the school district’s job site, there are 543 teaching positions open — about 120 for special ed teachers — and nearly 400 open positions for instructional support staff. 

Though it’s occurring alongside the general teacher shortage, the shortage of special education teachers is more complicated, according to those who work and do research in the field. 

Nico sitting in the car. Part of his disability involves seizures, so he wears a helmet when he’s outside of the house to make sure he doesn’t get hurt if he has one. Credit: Carinne Mossa

“In times when we see less of a shortage of other teachers, we’ve always had more difficulty to keep special ed positions fully staffed,” said Kara Hume, a former special ed teacher and current education professor at the University of North Carolina. “It’s worse now than it has been, but it has never been great.”

Multiple structural problems underlie the shortage. To start, certification to teach special ed generally takes longer to obtain than other teaching certifications. 

“There’s sometimes just a longer commitment to prepare as a special ed teacher that might be less attractive to people,” Hume said. “And then once in schools, we see higher attrition rates for special ed teachers.” 

Special ed teachers often report that they don’t feel supported by their school’s administration. They say they lack ongoing professional development resources, and that the administrative paperwork burdens they have to deal with for each student are too high. 

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