New study cites 'severe' teacher shortage in Cambria, Somerset counties

May 16—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — A new study detailing teacher vacancies lists Cambria and Somerset counties as in "severe" need for more educators.

#PANeedsTeachers, a statewide coalition of organizations, reports both counties need at least 30 additional qualified teachers. Sixteen percent of educators in Cambria County and 15% in Somerset County are listed as being novice teachers, and 5% in Somerset County are on emergency certificates.

Additionally, the attrition levels for both counties are "high," with roughly 7.5% of teachers having left jobs during the 2022-23 school year.

Cambria County has experienced a decline of 6% in the teacher supply through the past 10 years. No data for that category is available for Somerset County, the report said.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education's professional staff vacancy data, nearly 400 of the commonwealth's 500 public school districts are reporting vacancies since October — some filled by long- or short-term substitutes.

Nine of the more than 30 districts in Intermediate Unit 8 — made up of Cambria, Somerset, Bedford and Blair counties — have at least one opening.

Special education, school psychologist and elementary educator vacancies top the list, with hundreds of openings throughout the state, the state information shows.

Locally, several districts in Cambria and Somerset counties have at least one reported vacancy.

Conemaugh Valley has four long-term openings, according to the PDE data — elementary art, high school physical education, elementary physical education and secondary family and consumer sciences.

"It's a constant ebb and flow in some of these situations," Conemaugh Valley School District Superintendent Shane Hazenstab said. "There's always challenges there, but we work together — whenever there's a gap or vacancy, we work together to figure it out."

Hazenstab said since the survey for that information was turned in at the beginning of the school year, the district has filled the elementary physical education position, but that doesn't change the fact that a lack of candidates and a lack of qualified candidates continue to plague institutions.

Because of that, the district does not plan to fill the remaining openings moving into the next school year. Budgetary concerns also play a role in that decision as the administrators and board navigate a complicated health care situation.

Hazenstab said long-term vacancies such as this hadn't been an issue prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Louis Lepley, North Star School District superintendent, agreed.

"This is just another blow from COVID," he said. "We've lost a lot of people during that time in education, not just at North Star, but in education."

Lepley also said there are fewer applicants for these type of jobs compared to before the pandemic, which is another layer of complication.

North Star doesn't have any long-term openings listed in the PDE information, but Lepley said the district is using people with emergency certifications to fill Spanish and earth sciences jobs.

Specialized positions are becoming harder to fill, according to area administrators.

Physics and biology teachers, school psychologists, nurses and foreign language educators are difficult to find, Lepley said.

Somerset County appears to be in dire need of teachers, with that status listed as "extremely severe," #PANeedsTeachers claims.

Greater Johnstown School District is in need of teachers in a few of those fields — psychologist, Spanish and special education — and has the most vacancies in Intermediate Unit 8, with seven, because it's one of the largest districts in the area.

Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent Amy Arcurio said she can't remember a time when there were so many vacancies and so few applicants.

However, Arcurio said that the hiring pool was shrinking prior to the pandemic, which exacerbated the shortage.

In the 2010-11 school year, PDE certified 21,045 instructional 1 teacher certificates, but in 2022-23, there were 7,503 certificates. For that same time period, instructional 2 certificates decreased from 14,389 to 6,600.

Arcurio also pointed out that cyber-charter institutions often attract teachers from public schools — five have left Greater Johnstown this year — and because of the dwindling hiring pool, districts are recruiting from each other.

She said she can't remember a time when the vacancy situation was similar to this.

"Teacher supply, as measured by newly issued certifications, is failing to keep pace with teacher attrition and demand for new teachers," the #PANeedsTeachers report said. "Additionally, the teacher workforce is not reflective of the diversity of the student population and a shortage of qualified, experienced teachers have led to an over-reliance of less-effective novice, out-of-field and emergency-certified teachers."

If nothing is done, the coalition said the shortage could threaten the economic prosperity of the counties, the study said.

Solutions #PANeedsTeachers lists funding a teacher stipend program at $75 million per year as a recurring appropriation in the commonwealth budget "to create the certainty and predictability needed to influence behavior of prospective student teachers."

The coalition also suggests an appropriation of $10 million for funding for "grow-your-own" programs that create pathways for more high school students, community members and paraprofessionals to become teachers.

Michael Vuckovich, Windber Area School District superintendent, shared a similar path forward.

He said students should be correctly informed about how viable a teaching career can be.

Vuckovich added that he would like to see stakeholder groups gathered to redesign the teacher certification program to be more efficient.

Arcurio said a collaboration with the Pennsylvania State Educators Association would also be beneficial.

Windber doesn't have any long-term vacancy, according to the PDE data, but the superintendent said the district has had issues hiring for a special education position.

"There is a shortage, and it's a dire need," Vuckovich said.