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Special education staffing shortages 'at a tipping point'

Due to lack of staff, some special education teachers say they are unable to provide legally-required education to students with special needs.

PORTLAND, Ore. — School districts across Oregon, and across the country, are dealing with difficult staffing shortages. One shortage area that's been especially hit hard is special education.

Oregon Senator Michael Dembrow has convened a group of people to find solutions to the school staffing shortages. He told KGW this month that he believes the biggest challenge when it comes to the school staffing shortage involves special education teachers and paraeducators. 

Mary Darin, a speech-language pathologist for Portland Public Schools, works with kids who have special needs. She said even before the pandemic, special education teachers and paraeducators were more difficult to find.

“I feel like the challenges I’m going to bring up, we could have talked about three years ago. There has been, for a while, a lack of special education funding and support and staffing,” Darin said.

In addition, the job isn’t easy. In a special education classroom, student needs are always high and individualized. But this year, the needs are greater than teachers have ever seen before and range from academic needs to social/emotional.

Special education teachers dealing with 'greater needs than ever'

“We have students coming in with greater needs than ever, academically, socially, behaviorally, emotional regulation, trauma, those things are so present right now. And we're doing it all with less,” said Darin.

That means students who have behavioral issues are more likely to get more help. But other students who may not be disruptive but still have increased needs could fall to the wayside.

According to a survey sent out to the district’s special education teachers, Darin said there were similar themes in teacher responses.

“Overwhelmingly there have been themes of I mean, not able to provide legally mandated services, you know. The shift has been to safety and behavior, which it has to be. That is our first priority. But a lot of other things are being left behind,” Darin said.

Darin shared quotes from special education teachers in Portland:

“While I have concerns for my own physical safety and mental well-being my largest concern is for the safety of my students. Due to the behavioral needs of my classroom and the insufficient staffing, many of my students are at risk of serious physical injury,” said Darin.

Another teacher wrote, “I feel I am misleading parents by telling them I can fulfill student mandated services.”

“A majority of our special education teachers in focus classrooms.,94% of the special educators, said that their students lost their instructional time due to behavioral disruptions, 94%. And when I'm talking about that instruction, that is mandated on an IEP, an individualized education plan, and that is like a legal document,” explained Darin.

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A parent's perspective 

Kathy is a Portland parent who has a child with special needs. She said last year’s remote learning was not beneficial for her son.

“My son is woefully behind. He was already behind because he's a special-ed kid [...] Now we're trying to make up that time,” she said.

But that's proving difficult with staffing shortages. Kathy said one of the lead special-ed teachers recently left to go to another district.

“They're not replaceable right now. You can't afford to lose those people, and that's what's so frustrating is you need to treat them like gold. You need to give them the staff they need.”

What Portland Public Schools is saying

Jey Buno, senior director of special education for Portland Public Schools said the district has retention bonuses for paraeducators and referral bonuses for open special education positions. Buno also said PPS has had staff leave for other districts and other districts have had staff leave to get a job at PPS.

At last check, the district has 10 special education teacher vacancies and five school psychologist vacancies. Over seven are being filled by long-term substitutes (a mix of substitutes, central office staff, and other staff).

“Our goal is always to maintain an appropriate level of service for our special education students. In some cases, we have had to combine classrooms to maintain services,” said Buno.

Buno also said PPS is in the process of making summer plans aimed at helping special education students

RELATED: Portland Public Schools negotiating with union to give teachers more time for course planning

Parents looking for help

Kathy is hopeful there will be beneficial summer programming for her son. For now, she’s glad her son is able to go to school in person, though she said her son is still a year behind. She said she had to get an attorney involved to get tutoring help through the district.

“I know of other parents who can't afford a lawyer who, you know, whose kids are falling to the cracks and it's, it's really tough.”

Some parents are reaching out to 'FACT Oregon' for help, a family advocacy disability organization.

“Our call volume is continuing to rise and we've increased staffing to even support that […] There are students who are not receiving the services, they're entitled to,” said Christy Reese, interim executive director for FACT Oregon.

It's 'a domino effect.'

Darin hopes all parents recognize that these issues aren’t just related to special education.

“If you have a special education teacher who is filling in other roles, then those students aren’t getting the pullout services and then it’s all falling on the general education public teacher, the classroom teacher, to fulfill these roles,” said Darin.

“It really is a domino effect. I feel like every family in PPS or probably across the state or even across the country needs to realize that this is not a special education problem. It’s an education problem.”

“We are at a tipping point, because we're so stretched right now,” said Darin. “Most of my colleagues have a foot out the door and the more people that leave, the worse this exacerbates everything. But at this point, I can’t blame anyone for taking care of themselves.”

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