Pajaro Valley High School.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

‘Horribly understaffed’: PV High teachers’ complaints about staff shortage impacts paint grim picture

Two complaints were submitted to the Pajaro Valley Unified School District last week regarding teacher vacancies at Pajaro Valley High School this semester. Teachers say vacancies are negatively affecting students, and district officials say they’ve been working to fill them.

Pajaro Valley Unified School District teachers have decried the potential outcomes of a major instructor shortage since the fall semester began, and complaints filed by several teachers last week allege that the situation has gone from bad to worse.

The complaints were filed after a Santa Cruz County Office of Education report conducting annual student safety inspections at PVUSD schools found only small critiques on the campuses it inspected. The reports showed that the school facilities were either in fair or good condition, some schools had several teacher vacancies and none of the schools had insufficient instructional materials.

However, at a district board meeting last week, several Pajaro Valley High School teachers expressed their concerns about the impact of teacher vacancies on students.

“We are horribly understaffed,” Pajaro Valley High teacher Greg Tucker said during the meeting.

Teachers say some students who face constant substitute turnover have lost motivation — or in other cases, when there isn’t a consistent teacher or substitute, spend entire class periods in the cafeteria or wandering hallways. PVUSD officials say classes now have an administrator or substitute, but they won’t address those specific allegations in the complaints until next week.

The pressures on the school district aren’t entirely unique. Teacher and substitute shortages are being reported in schools across the country, with many schools claiming the pandemic has worsened the situation. Recognizing the statewide issue, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a provision in September doubling the amount of time a substitute teacher can be assigned to a class — from 30 to 60 days, according to EdSource.

The PVUSD building.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

PVUSD teachers say the system to file a complaint is unnecessarily cumbersome and that the district is undercounting the actual number of teacher vacancies. While teachers and the union representing them say the high school has nine vacancies, district officials say there are seven vacancies.

Alison Niizawa, the assistant superintendent of human resources at the district, said the discrepancy could be because the complainants are including sections that have no students or positions that are not being filled.

“It is a moving target,” Niizawa told Lookout on Tuesday. “It depends on when you’re asking me, the numbers could fluctuate.”

Report hits on vacancies, misassignments

The complaints were filed the day after an annual report on student safety was presented to the district school board regarding 19 of its 34 schools.

An official from the County Office of Education produced the report based on inspections conducted at the schools, looking at facility conditions, instruction materials and teacher assignments. The report found seven teacher misassignments or vacancies at Pajaro Valley High School.

California code defines misassignments as the placement of an employee in a teaching or services position that the employee is either not authorized to hold or for which the employee doesn’t hold a credential.

The complaints and the report are related to a 2004 settlement reached between the American Civil Liberties Union and the state of California about equal access to safe schools. In the case, Williams v. California, parents and teachers argued that the state wasn’t providing a safe learning environment in its public schools, and was particularly failing to do so in low-income communities and communities of color.

Part of the agreement led to the establishment of the Williams complaint process and regular Williams reports carried out at schools.

‘Unprecedented’ reasons for concern?

Rebekah Borenson, another Pajaro Valley High School teacher, was one of the teachers who filed a Williams complaint, according to the district. She also spoke at the board meeting last week about the effect on students.

“With nine vacancies and limited enclosed bathroom facilities, students are exhibiting escalating behaviors and undergoing mental health crises that are unprecedented, at least during my time in this district,” she said. “Without adequate staffing, it is our students who lose out but the effects are also felt by the teachers who show up every day.”

She said many teachers can count on one hand the number of days they have been able to use their prep period to plan classes and grade coursework, because instead they’re helping step in for vacancies. Borenson asked the district board members when teachers are supposed to have time to grade and plan.

Based in Watsonville, Pajaro Valley Unified School District is the largest in Santa Cruz County.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Teachers are burning the candle at both ends, and still the inequities persist,” she said.

For months, Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers President Nelly Vaquera-Boggs has been calling attention to the teacher shortage in the district and how it’s been impacting the entire school community. She said the district needs to do more to make the positions more attractive for new hires and find ways to retain current teachers and staff.

“No. 1: salary,” she said. “We have not had an increase to our salary schedule since the 2017-2018 school year.”

The district and the union are going into negotiations for a new contract and will have their first meeting Dec. 1, according to Niizawa.

‘Over 100’ teachers absent on a single day?

Regarding the complaints, Niizawa said she’ll meet with Pajaro Valley High School Principal Consuelo Mason next week to review them.

Asked about scenarios of the impact of teacher vacancies presented during the board meeting, and most notably a drastic teacher-to-student ratio issue the Friday after Veterans Day, Niizawa said she couldn’t confirm stories of students wandering hallways. But she also said she wasn’t sure exactly what the teachers’ general comments were speaking to.

We had probably over 100 [absent teachers]. We looked at the data ahead, and we knew it was going to happen. So we actually sent extra staff from the district office out to help the sites make sure that students were safe.

“We had probably over 100 [absent teachers],” she said about the day after the holiday. “We looked at the data ahead, and we knew it was going to happen. So we actually sent extra staff from the district office out to help the sites make sure that students were safe.”

She said she couldn’t speak specifically to classrooms that haven’t had a teacher since the beginning of the semester. But, she said, classrooms that didn’t have a teacher early on have by now either had an administrator, substitute or teacher on special assignment assigned to that class.

“So was that maybe true in the very first few days or a few weeks of school? Possibly” she said. “Is that true now? I don’t believe so. Again, I would have to know a little bit more context around what they’re talking about.”

Regarding the district’s efforts to fill the remaining teacher vacancies, she said officials are working to fill positions. They’ve been attending job fairs, working with the union to add signing bonuses, and they’re reaching out to classified employees to fill in teacher positions, Niizawa said.

“It’s obviously a national teacher shortage and a state of California teacher shortage,” she said. “So you know, it is a challenge, and districts across the state are facing the same kinds of effects that we are.”