The Massachusetts Association of Approved Special Education Schools (MAAPS) conducted a staffing survey in 2021 and found that 76 percent of schools are operating at a significant staffing deficit; from 10 to 50 percent of positions are vacant. Staffing at 70 percent of schools are close to or have already reached levels that could impact admissions and 14 percent have already turned students away. The survey also noted that 85 percent of schools reported “significant difficulty” with recruitment and retention of residential staff.
The New England Center for Children (NECC) is representative of these figures in both its day school and residential programs, according to Jessica Sassi, PhD, BCBA-D, LABA, executive director
Sassi explained that NECC specializes in autism and provides “…highly complex educational services to meet the needs of children that include communication, functional life and vocational skills.” Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) typically learn best in a one-to-one or small group ratio. but a dearth of licensed/certified teachers in the direct care entry level is negatively impacting this practice.
To alleviate the situation, a number of administrators who are former teachers, as well as therapists and clinicians, are contributing some portion of their time in the classroom. “We are able to support this model but it’s hard to see sustaining this long term,” she said. “These kids are used to seeing and knowing their teachers. Having different staff is a challenge for some of these students,” Sassi said.
NECC has had to discontinue or adjust some special programs, such as music and art. by using a “pull-in” model, i.e., teachers bring the lessons to the classroom rather than taking the students out. “When a child has behavioral issues, keeping him in a familiar environment is best,” Sassi noted.
In September, NECC closed its home-based early intervention program, which provided direct in-home services to children under the age of three with autism. The program requires a significant amount of administrative time, resources, and financial investment. “In the current scenario, fulfilling the commitment was too much of a challenge,” Sassi said. “I hope we can go back to this program in the future. It’s critical to what we do. It’s an opportunity to change a kid’s life.”
In an effort to help ameliorate the current shortage, NECC began paying referral bonuses to staff and alumni as well as retention bonuses to those who are giving extra time in the classroom, according to Sassi. She added that NECC now also offers three onsite graduate programs through Western New England University and Simmons College. Tuition costs for those who complete the programs and work at NECC for three years are free.
Michelle J. Leach, MA, CAGS, school psychologist for Horace Mann Middle School, reported that teachers, both new and veteran, are feeling tremendous emotional impact from the pandemic.
She indicated that paraprofessionals have been called on to cover some classes, which negatively impacts student reception of special services. Students with ASD trust their preferred teacher and may react negatively with a less familiar one, particularly when they have anxieties or school refusal behavior. “A new teacher is an added stressor,” she said.
Additionally, teacher-to-student ratio has increased significantly, Leach reported.
Keenly aware of the teacher shortage and its negative impact on students, the Massachusetts Association of Approved Special Education Schools (MAAPS) provided testimony to the legislature that encourages funding to alleviate the situation. The organization suggests that a portion of the funds from the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) be used to address “…both the staffing challenges at schools and the growing needs for special education services created by COVID-19’s impact on schooling.”
Furthermore, MAAPS asks that the legislature develop a “…sustainable, long-term workforce development pipeline to meet the Commonwealth’s special education demands, especially for students with complex needs who require extended school day and yearlong programs to effectively progress their education.”